Republican, former Libertarian, sets sights on 8th District seat

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter

Stewart Mills III describes his congressional run in keeping with the “hunting camp doctrine.”

“If you complain about it, you get the job to fix it,” said Mills, a Republican challenging Democratic Congressman Rick Nolan in the 8th Congressional District.

For Mills, whose grandfather in 1922 bought a car dealership and launched the family’s ascent in business — Mills’ Fleet Farm operates 32 stores in four states — the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, set him in motion.

Eighth Congressional District Republican candidate Stewart Mills III. (Photo by Mills' campaign)
Eighth Congressional District Republican candidate Stewart Mills III. (Photo by Mills’ campaign)

“That was the first and original issue that I got outspoken about,” Mills said of his opposition.

Later, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, Mills stepped in front of a camera. In a YouTube video watched close to 293,000 times, Mills argued his opinion on the folly of outlawing one kind of gun over another, concluding gun control does not work. He called for armed guards at schools and better mental health services.

Mills, of Nisswa, wasn’t always a Republican.

“In my mid-20s I was a Libertarian and actually joined the Libertarian Party,” he said.

Over time, after having a family and out of his belief in a strong national defense, he found his values aligning with the Republican Party, Mills said.

“I matured,” he said.

Besides Obamacare and Second Amendment issues, Mills cites elimination of the $17 trillion national debt — probably the biggest threat facing America, he said — and tax reform as key issues, as well as job creation.

“We have to grow jobs from Main Street up,” he said.

The economic heartbeat of the 8th District is small to medium-sized business, he said.

“Just because Wall Street is doing well, doesn’t mean we’re doing well,” Mills said of the district in Northeast Minnesota, a region with the highest unemployment rate in the state.

Mills began working at an auto dealership the family owns when he was 14 years old, washing and buffing trade-ins and brightening bumpers with steel wool.

He did not, as a teenager, necessarily anticipate staying in the family business, Mills explained. It was more a case of one project blending into another, he explained.

Mills portrayed the family business and politics as in separate realms.

“I’m not trying to leverage one off the other,” he said.

Certainly, lessons he learned in business have influenced his political outlook, Mills said.

Mills’ campaign has shown fundraising prowess. In the most recent financial quarter, Mills out-raised Nolan, bringing in about $244,000 to about $129,000 for the congressman.

Campaign dollars will also come from Mills himself, he said.

“I am going to be contributing to my campaigns,” he said, saying he would not ask contributors to do something he would be unwilling to do.

Mills is in a position to write checks. His share of the family’s Fleet Farm chain is worth between $41 million and $150 million, according to federal campaign finance records.

DFL State Party Chairman Ken Martin in a statement labeled Mills a Tea Party extremist, one willing to hold the nation’s economy hostage for political gain.

“It’s obvious that he is utterly unqualified to take on the job of U.S. Congressman and that he represents exactly what this country is running away from,” Martin said.

But Mills expressed regret over the recent federal government shutdown and talked of bipartisanship.

“There is tremendous opportunity (in the U.S. House) to make a voice heard and put together a coalition,” he said.

While saying he personally likes Nolan, Mills depicted the Democrat a partisan.

“He talks about bipartisanship a lot; he hadn’t demonstrated it,” Mills said.

Currently, Mills is working part time on his campaign, but said he expects he’ll be taking a leave of absence from work in the future.

Mills has been visiting local Republican groups, with photos of him standing by fellow Republicans occasionally seen on Facebook.

“I think he can do very well,” Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, said.

He’s been well-received in East Central Minnesota, she said. Erickson said she likes Mills’ business background, his youthfulness — Mills is 41 — and his opposition to Obamacare.

He has campaigning to do in some northern, more pro-Democratic counties, Erickson said.

Mills is confident he can make the sale.

“It’s just a matter of getting there and wearing down some shoe leather,” Mills said of getting out his message.

Mills likes and supported former 8th District Republican Congressman Chip Cravaack, whom Nolan defeated in 2012.

“I was, and am, a fan of Congressman Cravaack,” he said. And Cravaack has given him good advice, Mills said.

Mills is married, the father of five children. Currently vice president of Mills Fleet Farm, Mills has a variety of duties within the family’s businesses.

Mills, an avid duck hunter, was anticipating a bluebill hunt on Lake of the Woods and will be deer hunting near Brainerd in November. With a smile, he questioned whether he’ll have the time next autumn.

“I’ve had a lot of people come and asked me to run for a lot of different things,” Mills said.

His congressional campaign is gelling, Mills explained.

They’re meeting their metrics.

“It’s all coming together,” he said.


Tim Budig can be reached at [email protected].