WASHINGTON — Minnesota doesn’t have a pure “toss-up” House race this fall, instead a smattering of races where one can see a path to victory for challengers who will go into Election Day as decided underdogs. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we all woke up on Wednesday with two or three new members of Congress, but every incumbent is favored as voters go to the ballot box.
With that in mind, here’s a look at what to watch for in the House races.
Tier One: Challenger favored
Tier Two: Pure Toss-up
Tier Three: Incumbents favored, but challengers competitive
1st District, Tim Walz (D) vs. Randy Demmer (R): It has become almost an article of faith among Republican campaign strategists that Walz snuck up on Gil Gutknecht in 2006, that Gutknecht wasn’t paying enough attention to his race until it was too late. Walz, in that race, didn’t have the money Gutknecht had, but was able to mount an intelligent campaign and, aided by a Democratic wind at his back, knocked off the Republican incumbent.
In the 1st District, that story is most often told by Republicans. This time, they say, the wind is at their backs. Like in 2006, they have a well-funded candidate running a solid campaign. The difference, as Democrats are happy to counter, is that Walz has been acting like he’s got a race on his hands since before state Rep. Randy Demmer was the choice to face him.
The 1st is the GOP’s best hope for an upset in Minnesota. Demmer is on the highest tier of the GOP’s Young Guns ladder, which identifies the best and brightest candidates from across the nation. Republicans poured money in here, forcing Democrats to follow with a cash infusion of their own and now more than $1 million has been spent by outside groups on ads here this cycle.
This was not a race on most people’s radar at the end of 2008. Walz had just beaten Republican Brian Davis by 30 points in an absolute landslide. 2010 is a different story — the latest polls show Walz leading, though Demmer is close behind. Three weeks ago, Walz led by five. Last week he led by nine.
Walz and Demmer have both sought to play up their strengths on health care, particularly their ties to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. The city and its suburbs comprise the largest population center in the 1st, and it has become the prime battle ground in this race.
As he’s fond of reminding whenever the topic comes up, Walz was on the phone with the Mayo Clinic the morning of the final vote on the health care bill. He, along with Betty McCollum, met with Speaker Nancy Pelosi to ensure that some quality of care metric would be added to Medicare reimbursement rates, a provision Mayo has long advocated for.
Walz leads in donations from people associated with the Mayo Clinic, according to federal campaign finance records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Mayo workers gave Walz $31,450, by far the most he got from any firm’s employees. Demmer, in contrast, took in $3,300 from people associated with Mayo.
Demmer, whose state house district covers much of the Rochester suburbs, including communities where a majority of people are employed by or because of the renowned Mayo Clinic, credits Walz for that outreach to the world-famous hospital system — though he’s clear he would have ultimately voted no on the health care bill. Asked earlier this year about Walz’s perceived closeness to Mayo, Demmer listed Mayo executives whose cell phone numbers he had — and would have called before just such a vote.
Walz’s home, meanwhile, is the central point of his district, Mankato. West of there, as far as the eye can see, and a little bit more, is rural farm land that stretches from the edges of the Rochester metro almost uninterrupted across the state to the South Dakota border.
Walz has a seat on the Agriculture Committee, a big plus in a district that, by area, is mostly rural farmland. Aiming to blunt that advantage, House Minority Leader John Boehner promised Demmer that committee slot if he wins. Demmer has also attacked Walz over his vote for the carbon cap-and-trade bill that cleared the House but stalled in the Senate, saying it would hurt agriculture.
Back to those polls referenced earlier. In each of them, gubernatorial candidates Mark Dayton and Tom Emmer are running about evenly, so if Walz is to win he’ll have to outgain the top of his ticket, as he did in 2006 and 2008. Watch the early returns — doesn’t matter from what part of this district — to see if Walz is outdistancing Dayton, and by how much. Any percentage to the positive should be a good sign.
Republicans can take the House without winning a single seat in Minnesota, but if they’re having a really great night this is the first seat you’ll see it in. While Walz goes into Election Day the favorite on analysts’ scoreboards, Demmer is in with a real chance.
8th District, Jim Oberstar (D) vs. Chip Cravaack (R): Jim Oberstar has been representing the 8th District of Minnesota longer than Chip Cravaack has been living in it. Usually he coasts to victory on Election Day, with vote percentages in the 60s. The last big challenge Oberstar fended off was from Rod Grams in 2006 — and he won that by 19 points.
The turning point in this race came on Oct. 4, when Cravaack released an internal poll showing him down just three points. I haven’t seen a public poll of the race yet, but every major election handicapper now lists it as competitive — some placing it alongside the 1st as Minnesota’s most competitive district.
“I’m not a big fan of ‘own’ polls, so Cravaack’s survey kind of set off my skeptical meter,” said Bob Benenson, senior elections analyst for CQ Weekly in Washington (CQ rates MN-08 as Likely Democrat). “But who knows… I’m the one who keeps warning people to look out for out-of-nowhere surprises on Nov. 2. Complacency kills in this kind of political environment.”
Since then, the drumbeat of headlines has trended toward Cravaack, though the Oberstar camp has contested them vigorously. POLITICO on Oct. 13 ran a story saying Oberstar had only one donor from within his district in the 3rd quarter. After Oberstar campaign manager Bryan Yunis called POLITICO’s math “faulty,” the newspaper hit back with a deeper analysis, unhelpfully headlined “Jim Oberstar money base: Way outside Duluth.”
Then perhaps the toughest break of all — the Duluth News Tribune, the largest newspaper in the 8th District that has backed Oberstar in each of his previous campaigns, broke for Cravaack instead. http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/event/article/id/182080/ Again, camp Oberstar complained that the endorsement was due in large part to Forum Communications’ takeover of the paper, though it should be pointed out that the paper endorsed Oberstar for two consecutive cycles since the takeover.
The biggest surprise so far followed on Friday: A shock SurveyUSA poll that put Cravaack within a single point of Oberstar, leaving no doubt at all that this will be the stiffest challenge Oberstar has ever faced.
Yet astute readers will have noted that I don’t list this race in the most competitive “toss-up” category. There are three reasons for that, all of them structural.
1 — Here in the Northland, Mark Dayton leading the Democratic ticket is a terrific boon. Consider this statistic: More Democratic votes were cast in the DFL primary in the 8th (72,000) than in the 5th (70,000). If the gubernatorial race drives voters to the polls, there may be a whole host of Democratic leaners there for Oberstar to pick up.
2 — Oberstar has been in Congress a really, REALLY long time. Which is to say, people have voted for him for a really, REALLY long time. And as anyone who works campaigns can tell you, there’s a distinct advantage when someone has already pulled the lever next to your name more than once before. It’s not impossible; in fact it’s probable that Cravaack has pulled a number of those voters over to his column (the folks on the News-Tribune’s editorial board, for example). But enough to swing this race?
3 — Sometimes when driving across state lines you can literally feel the border under your car as you move from good pavement to bad, or vice versa. Ever driven from Minneapolis to Duluth? Same thing happens when you cross into the 8th District. Incumbents who survive big opposition waves generally do so because upset voters are willing to make an exception for them, for some specific reason. In Oberstar’s case, he’ll be pointing to some of the best road stock in Minnesota and bridges that wouldn’t have been built had it not been for Oberstar, the long-time chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
Yes, Chip Cravaack can win; he has a path to victory. And you certainly have to tip your cap to a candidate and his campaign that go into Election Day with the chance to unseat an incumbent that no one has ever even threatened. But it would take something of a GOP tsunami to flush Oberstar out of office — especially in a generally Democratic district — and it remains to be seen if the wave is that big.
6th District, Michele Bachmann (R) vs. Tarryl Clark (D) vs. Bob Anderson (I): Simply put, this the most expensive House race in the history of the United States of America. Never has so much cash flowed into one congressional campaign, with records set by both the incumbent and the challenger.
More than $16 million had been raised. More than $13 million has been spent. And those numbers, the last available from federal campaign finance reports, are probably way too low because they’re half a month old.
Part of the reason, undeniably, is that Clark is an amazing fundraiser. She’d have to be to set the sort of fundraising records she has. But don’t kid yourself, the reason money is flowing into this race from Seattle to South Beach is because of who Clark is running against: Michele Bachmann.
Bachmann took just over 46 percent of the vote in 2008, one of the lowest vote percentages of anyone elected in that year. She took just 50 percent when first elected in 2006. She’s been victorious, yes, but in both campaigns Democrats woke up the morning afterward thinking they could have beaten her had they done just a little bit more.
This race was the chance for Democrats to defeat the titular head of the Tea Party in Congress. Bill Clinton came to town for Clark — twice. Her fundraising pitches are authored by the voice of idyllic Minnesota, Garrison Keillor, who set Lake Wobegon (where every child is above average) in the 6th.
Clark’s campaign was a departure from previous efforts, which aimed to paint Bachmann as too “extreme” for her district, which at 57 percent Republican is the most conservative in Minnesota. Instead, Clark argued that Bachmann had forgotten where she came from and morphed into the representative of Tea Party-At Large.
To counter that, Bachmann has run a campaign emphasizing her ties to the district. On board her campaign bus, she eschews the casual Sunday attire so beloved by other candidates in favor of a Joe Mauer or Randy Moss jersey. She began a debate in St. Cloud by rattling off a list of obscure, microscopic hamlets in her district. And in between her frequent and fervent attacks on the stimulus, Wall Street bailout and health care bills, Bachmann inserts scorn for the EPA, which she says is blocking a bridge project in her district. And if voters somehow mistake Clark’s first name as “Taxin’ Tarryl,” well, that won’t be by accident.
But Bachmann’s central retort is simple: National issues on the size and scope of government, and the lagging economy, are by definition local issues. In focusing on them, she’s doing her job.
But what about Bob Anderson, the Independence Party candidate? While Anderson has been overlooked and underfunded this whole race, he had an impressive showing during a trio of debates in the last week of the campaign.
Remember that in 2008, Bachmann’s margin of victory was just three percentage points, while Anderson received 10 percent of the vote. Democrats grumbled that, had Anderson not been in the race, they might have beaten Bachmann, though I’m not as sure that he took as many votes from El Tinklenberg as some people think.
Anderson’s policy stands raised in the few debates this race saw in its last week tracked much closer to Bachmann than Clark, so if he does garner enough votes to impact the race I’m expecting they’ll come more from conservative independents than progressive ones.
The most amazing thing about this race has been the consistency. A SurveyUSA poll in July showed Bachmann leading Clark by nine points. A SurveyUSA poll in September — three months and millions of dollars later — showed the same thing: Bachmann by nine. The most important poll comes Tuesday; what will it show?
Tier Four: District makeup says maybe, but incumbents widely favored
Now we’re into the realm of races that no national pundit sees as competitive. Yet the district makeup suggests that, in an absolutely perfect storm, they could be.
3rd District, Erik Paulsen (R) vs. Jim Meffert (D): Paulsen took over the suburban 3rd District from the retiring centrist Jim Ramstad in 2008, but make no mistake, Paulsen is not a Ramstad clone. Paulsen’s voting record places him squarely in the center of the House Republican caucus, which winds up being well to the right of where Ramstad was. The theory among Ramstad supporters was that one had to be much more moderate to hold the district — and this race will test that hypothesis.
This district is a classic swing district — where George W. Bush narrowly held off Al Gore and John Kerry, but where Barack Obama bested John McCain by six points. Given that Paulsen took just 48.5 percent of the vote to win in 2008, this race seemed at the outset of 2009 like it would be a squeaker.
Three things have happened since. One, Paulsen has emerged as a wonkish Republican lawmaker who has quietly gone about his business and wound up passing more bills than John Kline and Michele Bachmann combined, while the more vocal Bachmann and more senior Kline have diverted attention from him. Two, Paulsen has raised tons of cash, while his opponent, Jim Meffert, struggled to find donors. Ironically, Meffert’s phone started ringing when Paulsen began airing negative ads against him, thus inadvertently upping the challenger’s name identification.
Third, which partly explains point two, the neighboring 6th District has vacuumed up a ton of cash and airtime that might have otherwise gone to this race. Not only is it difficult to raise money against an incumbent, it’s hard to raise enough to penetrate the cacophony of the media war that is Bachmann vs. Clark.
Meffert’s camp sees a window here — their internal polling during the summer showed Paulsen’s approval underwater. When they’ve been able to get their message out, they say, Meffert’s message has been resonating with voters. But that money gap is huge: Meffert has been outspent more than five to one, and Paulsen had a seven to one cash advantage going into the final three weeks.
7th District, Collin Peterson (D) vs. Lee Byberg (R): The reason this race isn’t in the tier below is because the 7th went for John McCain over Barack Obama. The reason it isn’t in the tier above is because of the incumbent, Collin Peterson.
In North and South Dakota, which border the 7th on the west, two moderate Democrats are in the fight of their political lives. South of Peterson, Walz faces the toughest race in Minnesota. Peterson, however, seems to be an island of political stability. He’s chairman of the Agriculture Committee in an ag-heavy district that counts on the Farm Bill, which he’ll be a lead author of whether Dems hold the House or not. He’s a political moderate who voted no on both the stimulus and health care — though his opponent has hit him hard on a yes vote for the House’s version of a carbon cap-and-trade bill.
Challenger Lee Byberg has run a spirited campaign, even making it onto the first rung of the GOP’s national “Young Guns” candidate program. He has raised more money that any challenger to ever face Peterson and both Byberg and his campaign staff say they’re hearing no end of northwest Minnesotans say they’re voting for change for the first time in a long time.
Yet Peterson’s own internal polling shows him up 34 points, consistent with his history of vastly outpacing his own party in the 7th. In 2008, he took 72 percent of the vote, running 25 points better than the man at the top of the ticket, Democrat Barack Obama. In fact, he hasn’t been held under 65 percent of the vote since the last big Republican wave election in 1994.
Tier Five: Off the radar
5th District, Keith Ellison (D) vs. Joel Demos (R): Credit to Demos — he has had by far the best ads of any candidate in Minnesota this cycle. The amusingly bizarre monster truck. The zeitgeist-poking Facebook “like” spot. And most notably, the too-cute-for-words “Kids” ad, where his two little ones comically attempted to work off the national debt burden placed on America’s youth.
But this is the 5th District, which two cycles ago elected the first Muslim member of the House of Representatives. Now, Ellison has become such a voice for progressives that he is running to lead them in the next Congress. Arguably the most prominent liberal voice in Congress is heavily favored in arguably the most liberal district in Minnesota.
2nd District, John Kline (R) vs. Shelly Madore (D): I should say that I’m not expecting this to be a run-up-the-score blowout. Kline has never eclipsed 60 percent in this district. And Democratic challenger Madore has already beaten the odds once this election season — the former state representative won the DFL primary over party-endorsed candidate Dan Powers.
However, Kline has a giant fundraising lead and is widely expected to not just win but take over the gavel of the powerful Education and Labor Committee when he does. Despite taking vote percentages in the 50s, Kline has a history of winning by a large enough margin that the race isn’t really that close — his last four elections were won by 15, 16, 16 and 11 points respectively. And this is expected to be a very good year for the GOP.
4th District, Betty McCollum (D) vs. Teresa Collett (R): The reason one can’t convincingly state that the 5th is the most liberal district in Minnesota is because the 4th also exists. Its hub is the state capital of St. Paul and Ramsey County, where the state and federal governments are large employers and reliant on federal funding to continue paying for those paychecks. McCollum just so happens to be the only Minnesotan on the Appropriations Committee — and has emphasized that role when talking about the funding she’s brought back for massive district projects like the renovation of St. Paul’s Union Depot or construction of the Central Corridor light rail line.
Collett’s campaign has attempted to seize on an eight-year-old clip of McCollum omitting “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, as well as comments they say show McCollum doesn’t sufficiently weight the threat posed by al Qaeda. However, we have yet to see a sign that an upset is really possible here.