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Television ads heat up race for Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District

DULUTH -- In Stewart Mills’ campaign ad for the 8th District Congressional seat, the Republican candidate sports orange hunting gear and touts his family’s hunting camp doctrine: “Instead of complaining,” Mills says in the commercial. “I’m going to fight to fix (Washington).”

The ad has been running since May. Incumbent Democrat Rick Nolan admits Mills’ television presence has narrowed the race into a fight that has drawn the attention of national observers.

Nolan’s campaign ads began last week. In one, he’s canoeing on his farm property in Crosby, Minn. He’s firing a rifle. Like Mills, Nolan is wearing hunters’ orange.

“Stop wasting taxpayer dollars on so-called nation-building overseas,” Nolan says in his commercial.

Both major party candidates in the 8th District race will tell you: in a race as close as theirs, television matters.

“Roughly 30 percent of the people, they’re too busy,” Nolan said. “They’ve got family and kids and Little League and church. They make a living. They don’t have time to watch the evening news. So those are the people you have to reach by television. They’ll sit down and watch ‘The Mentalist,’ or ‘So You Think You Can Dance.’”

While both candidates have been the subject of political action committee ads attacking the office seekers, it’s their own campaign ads that attempt to tell voters who they are.

Mills’ hunting camp doctrine ad is 30 seconds of simple and straightforward storytelling. Mills said the message began organically, shortly after he decided to run for the 8th District House of Representatives seat in 2013.

“It came very naturally,” Mills said. “I was giving a speech in 2013 and I was introducing myself to the voters. Somebody asked me, ‘Why are you running?’ I didn’t get a chance to finish, because they were calling me to speak, so I got up and said, ‘I’m running under the hunting camp doctrine.’ I was pretty much speaking right to the guy who asked me the question.”

The story goes that Mills complained about the food the first time he went hunting with his father, who took Mills aside and explained how the hunting camp works: you complain about something you get the job.

“The rest of the audience reacted so favorably to it that we’ve used it as the central talking point to answer, ‘Who are you? Why are you doing this?’” Mills said. “That answers the question. It would only play in Minnesota’s 8th District. I don’t think I could go anywhere else in Minnesota or anywhere else in the country and people would respond as well to it.”

Nolan concedes that Mills’ television presence is effective.

“We are in a close contest with this guy,” Nolan said. “We weren’t until they started spending money on all these ads.”

Nolan said his campaign couldn’t afford television ads to start until just before Labor Day. His ad is visually appealing; there’s greenery everywhere, perfect water for canoeing, and a shot of Nolan clutching his wife Mary around her shoulders. But it’s the snippet of Nolan firing a rifle that particularly looks to counter Mills, who has been touting his defense of the second amendment as a key leg to his campaign platform.

“I am one of you,” Nolan said in describing his ad. “I bought logs from the loggers. I delivered pallets to the manufacturers. I hunt. I fish. I pick my own rice. I tap maple syrup. We actually live in the country.”

Nolan, 70, is seeking his second consecutive term in the Nov. 4 election, having previously served as a congressman for the 6th District from 1975-81. Mills, 42, is vice president of Mills Fleet Farm, a family-owned company with more than 30 retail stores throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Both candidates reside in the Brainerd lakes area.

Minnesota’s 8th District runs from the top of the state’s Duluth/Lake Superior Arrowhead region, encompassing sizeable mining, timber, lakes and tourist country, to the northern suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul.