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Democrats target Kline in a newly moderate district

KENYON, Minn. — John Kline is confronting what could be his most competitive re-election contest since joining Congress in 2002.

John Kline marches in a parade in Kenyon, Minn., on Saturday. Kenyon gave Kline 69 percent of the vote in 2010, but new, blue areas of his district have given Democrats hope that he's vulnerable.
MinnPost photo by Devin Henry
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“I need to get out and see where people live and work and what their concerns are. I’ve done more travelling, into Wabasha County and up into South St. Paul, West St. Paul, Mendota Heights, just new parts of the district,” he said. “It has changed a little bit, but the basic structure of the campaign is what we’ve done in the past.”

Meet Mike

Taking down Kline, a five-term Republican with a committee chairmanship, a deep war chest and close relationships with leadership, will be a sizable challenge for Democrats. They’ve pinned their chances on Obermueller, a former one-term state representative whose biography is right out of political consultants’ dreams.

The son of a school teacher who grew up on a dairy farm and worked his way through law school, the 39-year-old ran for Tim Pawlenty’s old Eagan-based House seat in 2006 and 2008, winning the second time around. Obermueller’s district, the old 38B, was a traditionally red one, and he knocked off Rep. Lynn Wardlow by 2.5 percent in 2008, a Democratic wave year, only to lose to Wardlow’s son in a Republican wave two years later.

Obermueller says he governed as a pragmatist during his time in St. Paul and would do the same in Washington (his website touts positions you’re more likely to see on a Republican’s, like cutting wasteful federal spending and expanding domestic oil production).

Kline charges Obermueller with supporting higher taxes and said his record in the Legislature won’t fly with the district’s conservatives. But Obermueller said he should have a broad appeal in a right-leaning congressional district that redistricting has moved a bit toward the middle.

“There are places where we had Obama-Obermueller signs on one side of the street and McCain-Obermueller signs on the other side of the street because we built that level of support with folks” in 2010, he said.

DCCC sees an opening

Obermueller has proven himself an able fundraiser, pulling in nearly $275,000 during the first three months of his campaign, through July. He’s still well in Kline’s wake (he has $1.3 million on hand), but said he’s aiming to raise $1 million before November.

His early numbers were good enough to get national Democrats’ attention. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put Obermueller on its Red-to-Blue program of up-and-coming candidates in June, opening him up to fundraising and organizing assistance from Washington.

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The DCCC has reserved $3 million in Minneapolis ad time for the fall, though that could be split between multiple races (notably the competitive 8th District), and the group’s expenditure arm hasn’t decided how it will allocate the money. Obermueller himself has reserved nearly $800,000 in ad time for the fall (campaigns can reserve ad time up front without actually paying for it until the ads run).

But Obermueller, looking to run as a D.C. outsider, downplays the DCCC’s support. He said he’s “proud to have those guys interested in the race, but that’s pretty much the extent of where that relationship is going.”

The Democrats’ biggest hope lies in the new district lines. The 2nd lost conservative Carver County and added more portions of the more liberal 4th District. Kline calculates that he already represented 88 percent of the new district, but those Dakota County suburbs make up 8 percent of the new one, and they broke for President Obama 59 percent to 39 percent in 2008.

But Kline said the 2008 numbers are deceiving: Obama will lose some of that support, and Kline has already begun appealing to his core constituencies (such as veterans) in the new turf.

“I am confident that I’ll get a lot of those votes,” he said. “I won’t get ‘em all. I won’t get ‘em all anywhere. But I’ll get more votes, I think, than the Republicans have in the past.”

Medicare in the spotlight

Obermueller said he’s priming to run a campaign focused on a variety of issues beyond just the economy, tying Kline to leadership (he has a close relationship with U.S. House Speaker John Boehner) and focusing on under-the-radar issues like extending a reduced student-loan interest rate, a move Kline only reluctantly supported.

Democratic National Convention delegate Roger Gehrke said it’s a new strategy compared to those employed by past Kline challengers, who ran largely as single-issue candidates. The most notable of those, Gehrke said, was Coleen Rowley, an anti-war advocate who called for an immediate withdrawal from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who lost by 16 points in 2006.

“[Obemueller is] going and representing the wishes of the people and I think he’s done a pretty good job in determining what’s important in the race,” Gehrke said.

But Obermueller said he plans to emphasize one topic more than most: Medicare. Democrats see the issue as a winner against Republicans who support the Paul Ryan-proposed budget plan that changes Medicare, in part, to a voucher program. That’s a group that includes every incumbent House Republican, including Kline.

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Kline said he’s a fan of Mitt Romney’s pick of Ryan as running mate, and, inspired by his cheerleading both in Congress and on the campaign trail, Kline is rearing for a Medicare fight himself.

“You’ve got to be willing to step up and say, how do we do this, how do we turn the spending curve back down for the long term and do it in a way that ensures that we keep our promise to the people who are invested in the system, to seniors,” he said. “[Ryan] tried to tell all of us, look, we’re the guys who are saving Medicare. Go.”