WASHINGTON — With less than two months to go until Election Day, Randy Demmer’s campaign is giving off all the signs of an insurgent who finds himself with a realistic path to victory.
National Republicans have responded in kind. The would-be speaker of the House, John Boehner, has fundraised for him and promised him Democrat Tim Walz’ slot on the influential Agriculture Committee. His solid-but-not-spectacular fundraising has caught the eye of national Republicans who have now elevated him to the top tier of GOP challengers nationwide.
It’s no secret that the GOP leads nationally at this stage of the game. At least 83 Democratic-held seats are more vulnerable than the 1st District, according to the Cook Political Report, while Republicans are defending just eight seats in that same category.
Add in seats seen as “likely” to stay in the same hands, as Cook and most others rate the 1st, and 105 Democratic seats are in play, compared with just 17 for Republicans. The GOP needs to pick up a net 39 seats to ensure control of the House.
“Anecdotally, every place we go I’m sensing a surge,” Demmer said. “People are very upset nationally and we’re certainly seeing that in the 1st District.”
And while that’s good news for most every Republican candidate, it does present Demmer with a problem heading into the fall. Republicans have simply too many pick-up opportunities, too little money and too many paths to victory that don’t touch Minnesota to invest heavily in any race in this state.
So if Demmer is going to shock the state and upset Walz, he’ll be doing it mostly alone.
A swing district
The 1st is a bellwether district — in the 2000 and 2004 presidential election it went for Republican George W. Bush but in 2008 it went for Democrat Barack Obama. In all three cases, the winner took no more than 51 percent of the vote.
Yet representatives here have a history of running ahead of their parties. In 2004, then-GOP Rep. Gil Gutknecht took 60 percent of the vote when his presidential party-mate George W. Bush got just 51 percent.
In 2008, when Obama took 51 percent of the vote in the 1st (besting John McCain by four points), Walz took 62.5 percent in a walkover, nearly doubling the vote total of his closest competitor.
“I think what it tells you is that folks really look at the individual candidates,” Walz campaign spokeswoman Sara Severs said. “It’s not a national decision.”
“I don’t think what Walz did in ’08 is anywhere near predictive of what’s going to happen this year,” countered Demmer campaign manager Jason Flohrs.
His evidence, in part, is Gutknecht. Yes, there were many other factors in his eventual loss, but looking at it just from the top line, he took 60 percent in a presidential year. The following election booted him out of office as one of several casualties in a strong Democratic year.
No neutral polling has been conducted in the district so far. Demmer’s camp says they haven’t conducted internal polls and Walz’s team declined to release their own numbers.
Most campaign operatives and analysts I spoke to in preparing this article said they see Walz ahead and Demmer with a chance to win if he plays his cards right and the national mood stays sourly against Democrats and the health care and stimulus bills they championed.
It’s telling that both sides are operating their campaigns as if Walz and Demmer are in a serious race. Indeed, alongside the 6th District contest between Michele Bachmann and Tarryl Clark, one could make the argument that this is the only other one where both campaigns are treating the other as a serious threat.
So many races, so little money
So far, Demmer has done just fine putting this race on the national map almost all by his lonesome. He wasn’t the national party’s first choice to run and he survived a contested primary in which national Republicans largely sat on the fence and awaited a winner.
The 1st was one of many districts being soft targeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee. “We’ve been hammering away at Walz before there was even a candidate,” NRCC spokesman Tom Erickson said.
“We went into this race not expecting the RNC and NRCC to carry us,” Demmer said. “Whatever we get from them is plus.” As far as the money goes, Demmer said his campaign is raising the money it needs to be competitive.
Federal campaign finance reports are a bit out of date now, the last ones cover through July 14, but at that point Walz had $832,000 in the bank compared with Demmer at $222,000. Third quarter results are due at the end of the month.
That cash discrepancy will work as a firewall for Walz between now and Election Day. He’s almost certainly going to be able to out-spend Demmer in the final weeks of the campaign, especially given that the national parties don’t have the cash to come in.
“That’s definitely a bigger problem for Demmer,” said Steven Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “Walz is sitting on a big pile of money — I believe around $1 million — that is probably enough to combat a national tide, so Demmer needs equivalent funds to have a chance of overtaking him.”
Republicans have made an effort to provide budget-conscious help — the free or low-cost kind — to Demmer.
On the fundraising side, House GOP Leader John Boehner has come to Minnesota once to raise money for Demmer. Boehner also promised Demmer the spot on the Agriculture Committee currently held by Walz if he wins in an effort to blunt potential concerns that the 1st District wouldn’t have a seat at the table as the next Farm Bill is crafted.
The NRCC recently elevated Demmer to “Young Gun” status, identifying him as one of their top national prospects. They’re advising him on campaign strategy, fundraising and introduced him to Washington reporters during a brief trip to D.C. earlier this summer.
Interestingly, while national Republicans are bullish on Demmer, national Democrats don’t seem proportionally worried about Walz.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has a list of their most vulnerable incumbents, the Frontline Democrats. Getting on that list gets one exempted from caucus fundraising dues and an extra focus from party brass.
Walz isn’t on that list — and national party officials say he isn’t anywhere close to being on it either.
“The reason why you are not seeing national parties get involved in this race is because Tim is in a strong position,” said DCCC spokeswoman Gabby Adler, who said Demmer is “far from a credible candidate” who supports “the same old policies of the past that got us into this mess.”
Erickson counters that Democrats may have to reassess their position as Election Day nears, especially if Demmer turns this race from Likely Dem to Toss-up. And perhaps at that point, he said, Democrats will find themselves on the short end of money.
“There are going to be races that start to fall away from [Democrats] that they’re going to have to help,” Erickson said. “We’ll see what that help can be.”