THE HILL: Minnesota set for pivotal House battles

BEN KAMISAR, THE HILL

Rep. Tim Walz’s (D) decision to run for governor has created an open seat in the 1st District, while freshman Rep. Jason Lewis (R) will try to hold on to his swing seat.

Buoyed by President Trump’s strong performance in the state, Republicans plan to go on the offensive in two seats currently held by Reps. Rick Nolan (D) and Collin Peterson (D). But Democrats have their own plans in the state, aiming to win over well-educated suburban voters who could help them oust Rep. Erik Paulsen (R).

That means five of the state’s eight seats will be getting national attention this year, making Minnesota one of the most competitive states in a cutthroat election cycle.

“There is no majority party in Minnesota. There’s a tremendous amount of volatility and a tremendous amount of voters available to each party, which makes the races in Minnesota as competitive as in any other state,” said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Minnesota’s Carleton College.

Minnesota saw plenty of election intrigue in 2016, including one of the most expensive House races of the cycle and a near-win for Trump.

Minnesota’s 2018 races will continue to echo in Washington, too.

Republicans want to paint Minnesota Democrats as too liberal for their constituents, while Democrats are looking to turn low approval ratings for Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress into House pick-ups in the traditionally blue state.

With incumbents increasingly hard to defeat, open seats are potentially momentous pick-up opportunities.

Walz, the six-term Democrat leaving his seat to run for governor, has held on to the Republican-leaning district for more than a decade but only won reelection over Republican Jim Hagedorn by less than 1 percentage point in November. And while former President Obama narrowly won the district in 2012, Trump won it in 2016 by 15 points.

Hagedorn is running again after his near-win last year. He raised about $300,000 in the first six months of 2017 — more than any other nonincumbent Republican House candidate in the country.

But more than two-thirds of that money came in his first three months, a sign to some Republicans who spoke to The Hill that more candidates might enter on the GOP side. One Republican strategist familiar with the race told The Hill that state Sen. Carla Nelson, a Republican who represents a Democratic-leaning constituency, is looking at the race.

The Democratic field is already competitive, with candidates like former state Sen. Vicki Jensen and Dan Feehan, a veteran and former Obama-era Defense Department official, looking to leverage Walz’s success and Trump’s poor favorability ratings to hold the seat.

“My hunch would be that Republicans probably have the edge,” said Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota. “Walz is one of a kind.”

Lewis will try to hold on to the state’s other toss-up race for the GOP, after winning it as an open seat in 2016. Democrat Angie Craig outspent Lewis, using controversial comments on slavery and women made in his previous career as a radio talk show host against him. Still, Lewis hung on by less than 2 points, while Trump carried the district by a similarly narrow margin.

 Republicans and outside observers agree that Lewis’s record in Congress is not as conservative as Democrats allege, pointing to his work on juvenile justice reform.

“He’s conservative, of course, but people think he’s more ultra-conservative than he is because of some things he said on the radio show,” said Maddie Anderson, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“If you look at what he’s doing in Congress, for example, the juvenile [justice reform] bills, you’ll see that he’s more of a moderate conservative than people think.”

Democrats hope their attacks will stick better on Lewis this time around, as Trump bounces from controversy to controversy.

Tarring Lewis as too conservative could be a strong strategy in a more moderate district like this one. But as Craig has filed for a rematch, she’ll have to fight the power of incumbency now.

In the 8th District, Nolan, a Democrat, has seen his district grow increasingly competitive thanks to population growth in the more Republican-leaning parts of the district. Nolan won reelection in 2016 by less than 1 point against Republican Stewart Mills in one of the most expensive races of the cycle, while Trump won the district by 16 points.

But as Mills weighs a third bid, Republicans are beginning to rally behind Pete Stauber, a longtime policeman and former professional hockey player whose family owns a sporting goods store in the district.

Stauber has won enthusiastic praise from Republicans who believe that Nolan’s presidential primary endorsement for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) makes him easy to smear as too liberal for the district. Still, Democrats believe that voters will continue to embrace Nolan’s populist brand.

“It goes back to trust. He’s an incumbent who voters know will do right by them and he’s a straight shooter on every issue,” said Rachel Irwin, a spokeswoman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“It’ll take a lot to knock him off, and if it didn’t take the millions [of dollars] in campaign ads last cycle, I don’t know what will.”

 All of these races will see tons of resources pour in from national groups looking to win the House majority. But some of that money could be contingent on other factors, like support for Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

 After four Minnesota congressional candidates appeared reluctant to pledge to support Ryan as speaker if elected, the Congressional Leadership Fund, one of the largest super PACs aligned with House Republicans, told The Washington Post it would “prioritize friends and family first.”

Political science professors Jacobs and Schier, both longtime observers of Minnesota politics, view Paulsen and Peterson as heavy favorites. Both won reelection in 2016 in districts the opposing party’s presidential candidate won, and have largely cemented their brand among their constituents.

“His voting record is real conservative, but he projects a moderate, very pleasant sort of image that works in the district. He’s almost the poster child for ‘Minnesota nice,’ ” Jacobs said about Paulsen.

For Peterson’s part, Schier noted the congressman’s crossover success.

“As long as Collin Peterson is on the ballot in the 7th, he’ll win that race, but once he’s gone, it’ll be a red district, probably forever,” he said.

The incumbents still could face tough competition ahead of their reelections. Republicans are still looking for a challenger to Peterson but are boosted by the fact that his margin of victory dropped from 25 points in 2012 to about 5 points in 2016.

And in their push for Paulsen’s seat, Democrats are excited about Dean Phillips, a former businessman and strong fundraiser who traversed the district in a retrofitted milk truck — the “government repair truck” — to chat with constituents.

But in a state as politically unpredictable as Minnesota, most caution that anything can happen.

“This is a state where Trump lost by less than 2 percent and shocked the world,” Schier said.

“It can be reliably blue but also has a Republican state legislature now. I think volatility is the word I would use, and unpredictability.”

 

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