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Published November 03, 2010, 05:44 PM

Cravaack Plays Giant Killer in MN Congress Race

The retired Navy Reserve and Northwest Airlines pilot defeated the longest-serving congressman in Minnesota history early Wednesday, edging out Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar and joining a Republican wave that won the party a U.S. House majority.

By: Associated Press,

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Chip Cravaack went from being a political novice to a giant killer.

The retired Navy Reserve and Northwest Airlines pilot defeated the longest-serving congressman in Minnesota history early Wednesday, edging out Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar and joining a Republican wave that won the party a U.S. House majority.

For Oberstar, it's the end of a long Capitol Hall career that saw him rise in 18 terms to chairman of the powerful Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Oberstar, 76, a native of the Iron Range town of Chisholm, went to work as a staffer for U.S. Rep. John Blatnik in 1963 and won his seat when Blatnik retired in 1974.

Cravaack, 51, of Lindstrom, will become the first Republican to represent northeastern Minnesota in Congress since 1947. Oberstar had never gotten less than 59 percent of the vote, until Cravaack beat him by less than 2 percentage points.

In an interview Wednesday, Cravaack said he decided to run after he and others were turned down when they asked to meet with Oberstar to discuss the federal health care bill. He said he sincerely thought he could beat Oberstar, even if few others did.

"I had to think long and hard on it, but I felt it was a worthwhile fight," he said.

His wife, Traci, said she would take care of things at home, so he hit the campaign trail in the district, which sprawls from the northern fringes of the Twin Cities up to the Canadian border.

"Oh boy I put on a lot of miles. Holy mackerel!" he said with a laugh.

Cravaack was born in Charleston, W.Va., and grew up in suburban Cincinnati. He's a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. He moved around the country in his nine years as an active duty Navy helicopter pilot. In 1990, he went to work as a pilot for Minnesota-based Northwest Airlines and joined the Navy Reserve. He had to retire from flying in 2007 because he has sleep apnea, and he took on what he called "the toughest job in the world," that of stay-at-home dad to his two sons, now 6 and 9.

While Oberstar touted his years of experience and the large amount of federal money he brought back to his district in the form of transportation and other public works projects, Cravaack argued it was time for the spending to stop.

"As a 24-year veteran I run against congressman Jim Oberstar with all due respect," Cravaack said in one TV commercial. "And I disagree with his record. He nationalized our health care. He voted to raise our energy taxes. He spent billions and ran up the debt but created very few jobs. Mr. Oberstar has been in Washington for almost 50 years, but he's voting against us. It's time we make a change."

Cravaack said good public infrastructure is essential, but he hopes to focus instead on expanding private-sector employment so his district's young people don't need to move to the Twin Cities to find work.

He also said he'd like a seat on Transportation because of his aviation experience, while his union background could get him a spot on the Education and Labor Committee, and his military background gives him something to offer to the Armed Services Committee.

As a candidate, Cravaack projected a clean-cut, straight-arrow image. Ron Britton, of Eveleth, the longtime treasurer of the 8th District GOP, said he got to know Cravaack during the campaign and liked what he saw.

"He's one of those that's very likable, very down to earth, and knows pretty much what he is going to do, and very decisive. His military career kind of shows through," Britton said. "He is one of those people who when you meet him you like him, whether you like his policies or not. That's Chip."

Britton, who's been active with the GOP in the region since 1976, knows well the struggles of Republicans in what had been a Democratic stronghold. He said Cravaack overcame them with an early start, good organization and by capitalizing on a growing disenchantment with Oberstar and Obama administration policies.

"He had the experience and the know-how to get people motivated and that's what it takes," Britton said.

Organized labor has been a powerful force in northeastern Minnesota and long supported Oberstar, but Cravaack has union credentials of his own as a member of the Air Line Pilots Association for over 19 years. He often told voters he had been a union steward, been furloughed, walked picket lines and been on strike.

While ALPA's president endorsed Oberstar, a recognized expert on aviation issues, Cravaack picked up significant endorsements from other groups that had supported Oberstar over the years. They included Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the state's largest anti-abortion group. The Duluth News Tribune, the 8th District's largest newspaper, endorsed Cravaack after long supporting Oberstar.

All of that helped chip away at any notion of Oberstar's invulnerability.

"People tell me they voted for Jim Oberstar year after year after year because they felt they didn't have another choice. ... This time the choice is yours," Cravaack said in another TV ad.

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