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Minnesota’s Second District: Where are the candidates?

An open congressional seat represents a rare opportunity for an ambitious politician, yet few have declared for Rep. John Kline’s vacated seat.

An open congressional seat is a rare opportunity, yet, so far, a crowded field of top-tier candidates has failed to materialize.

When Rep. John Kline announced his retirement from Congress earlier this month, he created a rare thing: an open Congressional seat.

Political talents can wait for generations until a long-serving incumbent leaves office — with Kline’s departure, Minnesota politicos and press assumed ambitious candidates from both parties would pounce on this special opportunity. Kline had held the seat on lockdown since 2002 — wouldn’t scores of politicians come forward to run?

Not really: the packed field many imagined has failed to materialize. In the weeks since Kline’s retirement, several high-profile Republicans in the district have declined to run for the seat, leading some to doubt if the GOP can keep the district in their hands. It also backs up a broader, nationwide trend: for top talent, the prospect of running for Congress is no longer an appealing one.

McFadden, Pawlenty, Thompson rule it out

The state of affairs in CD2 today is a stark departure from what it was in the days immediately following Kline’s announcement, when a number of state legislators, past candidates, and other prominent Republicans left the door open to a congressional run. Then the dominoes began to fall.

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State Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville, who sought the GOP nomination for governor in 2014, said he would not run. Former U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden, with more name recognition than nearly every other potential GOP candidate, ruled out a run. Former judge and Minnesota first lady Mary Pawlenty, who would have benefitted from the political and fundraising connections of her husband, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, similarly chose not to seek the seat. Other viable candidates, like state Rep. Steve Drazkowski and state Sen. Eric Pratt, declined to run.

So far, the only declared Republican candidates are David Gerson, a Tea Party conservative who’d challenged Kline before, and former State Sen. John Howe, who is promising to be as conservative as possible while remaining electable. Thus far, no Republican has officially entered who could credibly carry on the establishment mantle of Kline, who is known to be close to (now outgoing) Speaker John Boehner. Before Boehner announced his resignation, both Gerson and Howe said they would not support him.

The slow filling of the CD2 field is a far cry from how past open-seat contests in Minnesota have unfolded. In the safely Republican 3rd District in 2008 and 6th District in 2014, the eventual winners surfaced shortly after the seat became available. Tom Emmer announced his bid a week after Michele Bachmann announced her retirement, and Erik Paulsen was essentially the ordained successor of Jim Ramstad.

On the Democratic side, two candidates — Angie Craig and Mary Lawrence — had been in the race before Kline’s announcement. Craig, a medical technology executive, and Lawrence, a former VA doctor, have raised quite a bit of money — Craig through fundraising, Lawrence through a large personal loan to her own campaign — despite not coming up through the state legislature or DFL party infrastructure. Neither has previously held elected office.

But Kline’s sudden retirement was expected to prompt other, more prominent CD2 Democrats to re-evaluate their chances, now considering facing a lower-profile, primary-scarred Republican instead of a powerful incumbent. State Rep. Joe Atkins, for example, was floated as a strong, experienced potential candidate. He hinted at a run, but is now saying he’ll keep his options open, and may not run at all.

The job nobody wants

In announcing their not-runs, CD2 Republicans have generally trotted out the boilerplate: “it’s not the right time for me,” said Pratt; Drazkowski said he could do his “best job” serving back in Minnesota.

State Rep. Pat Garofalo was more candid: “I’d rather stick a fork in my eye,” he said.

Looking deeper, there are a number of factors that might have potential candidates reaching for the flatware instead of considering a run for Congress. First and foremost, the district is such a toss-up that campaigning there will require enormous energy and money — not to mention a willingness to withstand the scrutiny of the party committees and super PACs salivating over a rare open-seat contest. One Democratic challenger, Mary Lawrence, already has a million dollar war chest. Some would-be candidates see a year ahead filled with constant fundraising, attack ads and national attention, and say, “No thanks.”

But say you withstand all that and actually win the seat. Great — but you’ll have to do it all over again two years later. The district won’t be a safe one for either party any time soon, and for a new representative, the incumbent’s advantage will be weak. (Chip Cravaack could tell you as much.) Because of fundraising pressure, campaign activity in these marginal seats tends to start earlier, too.

Running for CD2 — from either party — would basically be a perma-campaign, says Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College. For a CD2 representative, for most of your career — however long it lasts — “you’re a piñata,” Schier says. “You’ve gotta really want it.”

Drazkowski told MinnPost that running now is basically a “four-year commitment because of how close the numbers lie in the district…no doubt, that’s part of the equation that people think about.”

Beyond that, for many would-be candidates, being a member of Congress just isn’t worth the trouble anymore. The travel back and forth each week and the time away from family is punishing: Dave Thompson cited it as a major reason why he chose not to run, and Kline mentioned it was a factor in his decision to retire.

If the travel were worth it, that would be one thing — but Congress’ dysfunction, constant campaign pressure, and dismal public perception are prompting political aspirants to make their marks elsewhere. Nationwide, parties are having trouble recruiting top-level candidates to run for U.S. House seats, with many preferring to run for local or state-level offices where they might have a greater impact.

Without a doubt, Schier says, “the U.S. House position is less attractive now than it used to be. It’s not as satisfying a job as it used to be.” Thompson echoed that: “the thought that it’s not as appealing a job as it used to be, that’s possible,” he said, but added it wasn’t his main concern.

Drazkowski recalled a meeting with a supporter: “She said, Draz, we wanna keep you here because you’ll get lost and they’ll change you in Washington. That’s what some people certainly think of Washington.” It was a part, albeit a small one, of his decision, Drazkowski said.

Parties confident

Minnesota politics-watchers are confident more candidates will come out of the woodwork soon. Because of the district’s competitiveness, selling potential candidates — and more importantly, their families — on a run could just take more time than in safer districts.

Some viable candidates could join Howe and Gerson in the race, including former state Sen. Ted Daley and former state Rep. Pam Myhra. (Former U.S. Senate candidate Kurt Bills didn’t close the door on a run, either.) The establishment could line up for Daley, a Gulf War vet and active Army Reservist whose center-right profile and military background casts him in the Kline mold.

But those who watch the district acknowledge that its GOP establishment has drifted rightward in recent years. Relative moderates, like Rep. Pat Garofalo, declined to run. Broadly, the politics of the Republican Party have moved to the right since Kline was elected, says Carleton’s Schier. “That’s evident among activists in the 2nd District…if someone like Gerson is the nominee, they’ll have trouble being competitive.”

Outwardly, both state parties are projecting airs of confidence. DFL chairman Ken Martin said that “the tide is blue in CD2.” State GOP chairman Keith Downey acknowledged that the competitiveness of the race might be causing some candidates to take longer to make a decision, but added no one should be concerned about it. “It takes a toll and people weigh the costs…people don’t enter it lightly anymore,” he said.

“Congress is one of the best jobs in politics, you’re in the middle of the most important issues, it’s a dynamic body,” he said. “But it’s also one of the toughest, if not the toughest.”

“I’m not surprised at where we’re at…I’m confident we’ll have an outstanding candidate.”