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Cravaack-Nolan one of nation's most expensive House races

U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack (left), R-North Branch, listens while Democratic challenger Rick Nolan speaks during a candidate forum at the Duluth Playhouse on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012. (Steve Kuchera /

One of the closest congressional races in the country also has become one of the most expensive.

Minnesota's 8th District race between incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack of North Branch and Democrat Rick Nolan of Crosby has recorded the sixth-highest spending by outside groups among all House races in the country so far this season -- nearing $5.6 million as of Monday.

With that money, SuperPACs and party campaign committees have flooded the airwaves from the Twin Cities to the Iron Range, mostly with negative ads.

It's the outside spending that has led to such a negative campaign, said David Wasserman, a political analyst for the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based group that analyzes elections.

Ads on both sides have accused the other candidate of trying to gut Medicare. One ad accuses Nolan of voting to increase his pay while missing votes in Congress. Another slams Cravaack for spending $1,000 a month of tax money on a leased vehicle to get around the district.

"Candidates are typically more averse to running negative ads than outside groups," Wasserman said. "They don't want mud on their hands."

The outside money spent in the 2012 race is more than 17 times the $322,588 spent by outside groups in 2010, when Cravaack unseated longtime incumbent Jim Oberstar.

This year's spending reflects an interest in the race that goes well beyond the district, said Kathryn Pearson, an associate professor with the University of Minnesota's political science department.

"Democrats and liberal groups see this as a race that would help them regain the majority party in the House," Pearson said. "Republicans see Cravaack as one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country."

Internal polls both by candidates show a tight race. The only independent poll conducted thus far and released last week, by KSTP-TV in the Twin Cities, showed the race virtually tied.

"This is one of the most competitive races in the country," Wasserman said. "Duluth is a relatively inexpensive market to advertise in, while the Minneapolis market is very expensive. So that makes it cost-prohibitive. It's no surprise this is in the Top 10."

The candidates themselves haven't had access to nearly as much money. Cravaack's campaign had raised $1.8 million and Nolan had raised just over $814,000 by the end of September.

Wasserman attributes that to the difficulty of raising money in the district.

"This is not New York, or Philadelphia or San Francisco," he said.

Perhaps not surprisingly, representatives for both candidates say the outside spending has largely been harmful -- to them.

Cravaack campaign adviser Ben Golnik said the congressman has been hammered by outside ads almost since the time he took office.

"It's challenging when you have outside groups doing this," Golnik said. "They have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars putting out outright false ads."

Cravaack has seen $3 million spent by outside groups in opposition to him, compared to $2 million spent opposed to Nolan.

Nolan campaign manager Mike Misterek laments the outside spending and said if Nolan is elected he'll sponsor a constitutional amendment that would counter the concept of "corporate personhood" established by the Supreme Court, which allowed groups to raise unlimited amounts of campaign money.

"It should be about the issues, not about the negative attacks that go back 30 years," Misterek said.

But asked whether the $3 million spent by Nolan supporters against Cravaack has helped his candidate, Misterek said: "I guess I don't know if that helps him or hurt him.

"It's always difficult to measure that," he said. "The thing I see is that polls, and our polls, show we're up."

As the race heads into the final weeks, Pearson said voters should expect that spending on the race and negative ads will only increase -- substantially.

If there's good news in that, she said, it's that "voters in the district will have much more information about the House race, even if some of that is negative. And they'll be much more aware that this is a very close race."