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Big money flows in to aid Nolan as 8th District race tightens

WASHINGTON - A major labor union and a big spending Democratic group launched $150,000 in ads on Friday to attack U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan's Republican opponent, Stewart Mills.

The cash injection came after Democrats added Nolan to a list of House lawmakers in tough races eligible for special party support. While most professional, nonpartisan campaign watchers in Washington still give Nolan a narrow edge to keep his seat, even he acknowledges the 8th District race is tightening.

"I'm in a horse race back there," Nolan said just off the floor of the U.S. House. "They'll have more money than I do at the end, but I've worked hard, people know me and I've got very good positive ratings in the polls."

For Nolan, the money game has changed dramatically since his last stint in Congress in the 1970s.

Members are expected now to spend a lot of time fundraising from call centers both parties maintain on Capitol Hill. It can't be ignored. This latest round of ad spending by outside groups – nearly $700,000 so far – has pushed the campaign into the top tier of competitive House races this year, the Center for Responsive Politics reports.

After another quarter of raising less money than Mills, Nolan last week quietly entered Frontline, a program run by U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat who represents Minnesota's 1st District. It offers fundraising and campaign advice to the most vulnerable House Democrats.

"I didn't take this job to be an entry level telemarketer dialing for dollars," Nolan said. "I came here to fix things and I found common ground in many cases and got a lot of things done and I'm proud of that."

Money for the ads launched Friday came from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the House Majority PAC. A so-called super political action committee, it can raise unlimited donations so long as it doesn’t coordinate directly with a campaign.

The frustration over fundraising is noble, "but it is the air we breathe now," Walz said.

Nolan, Walz added, will need the cash to compete with Mills, already has lent his campaign $120,000 from his personal fortune.

"You need to make sure you're heard and I think for many of us, there might have been a sense of, in Minnesota anyway, complacency," Walz said.

So far, Nolan has raised nearly $1.1 million since the beginning of 2013. Mills has raised slightly more even though entered the race later.

The Frontline help and the AFSCME and super PAC money are signs that Democrats are running scared in the 8th District, Mills spokeswoman Chloe Rockow said.

"Stewart is running a winning campaign," Rockow said. "We're getting a lot of really good responses so the Nolan camp can look at that and it makes sense that they'd be a little worried."

The Mills campaign has been aggressively going after Nolan, citing his F grade from the National Rifle Association, his votes in this Congress and votes from his terms in the 1970s.

Democrats for decades held a lock on the 8th District seat. Republican Chip Cravaack unexpectedly beat longtime Rep. Jim Oberstar in 2010 after conservative areas closer to the Twin Cities were added to the huge district that runs to the Canadian border.

Nolan beat Cravaack in 2012 and campaign watchers say despite the district’s changing demographics, it still tracks Democratic and that Nolan should benefit from the voter turnout operation built by two DFL statewide candidates, Gov. Mark Dayton and Senator Al Franken.

"The burden of proof is on Republicans to prove that they can overcome some of the structural advantages that Nolan has," said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Cook Political Report.

The campaign has already turned sharply negative on both sides.

Nolan, though, said he hasn't shied away from voting his conscience even when he knows that vote could later be used against him, adding that he gives the same advice to younger members facing tough re-elections.

"Just do the right thing, what you think is right and you'll sleep well at night," he said. "The opposition is going to make crap up about you anyway."