MN-08: Grams vs. Oberstar

The Biographical Directory of Congress, which profiles everyone who has served in the House and Senate since the Continental Congress, includes thousands of biographies of House members who went on to become U.S. senators. But the list of those who served in the Senate and went on to the House is a slim one indeed. The most recent was arch-liberal Democrat Claude Pepper, U.S. senator from Florida from 1936 until his defeat in 1950, and then rebounding as a U.S. representative from 1962 until his death in 1989 (when Pepper was chairman of the House Rules Committee).

Now, Rod Grams hopes to become the Republican Claude Pepper. A former television newscaster, stalwart conservative Grams served one term in the U.S. House from Minnesota and then was U.S. senator from the Gopher State from 1994 to 2000. Incredibly, the state that elected Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Paul Wellstone had a senator voting not all that differently from Sen. Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.). Asked where he disagreed with Helms, Grams (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 96%) said: “I was much more of a free trader than Jesse.”

In 2000, however, Gramms lost by 49% to 43% to Democrat Mark Dayton. But evidence is strong that the former senator’s good-as-Goldwater voting record had less to do with his defeat than other circumstances, including the well-publicized election-year conviction of Grams’ son for stolen vehicle and firearms possession and the senator’s own divorce in 1996. Furthermore, multimillionaire Dayton outspent him by nearly 2 to 1.

After his defeat, Grams returned to his childhood home in Minnesota’s Iron Range. But it wasn’t long before 8th District Republicans, never forgetting that he carried the historically Democratic district in 1994 and only narrowly lost it in 2000, began saying “Run, Rod, Run”—against Democrat James Oberstar, the 8th District’s congressman since 1974.

Grams finally agreed. As he explained: “The irresponsible spending and the ankle-biting in Congress finally made me decide to run. When Ronald Reagan vetoes a transportation bill in 1987 because it has 154 earmarks and George W. Bush signs a transportation bill this year with more than 6,400 earmarks, something is wrong.” Oberstar (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 11%) has been a true “prince of pork” as ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Grams also takes issue with the 71-year-old Oberstar on immigration, noting, “I’m for border security, my opponent favors sanctuaries for illegal immigrants.”

The unanimous nomination of Grams by 8th District GOPers and the enthusiastic turnout of volunteer workers for his campaign show that the former senator is still the Republican favorite son of the “Iron Range.” If his fellow conservatives nationwide now mobilize behind him, Rod Grams could become the “Republican Claude Pepper.”