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3rd District race between Paulsen and Bonoff may come down to who’s the real moderate

In an election year so far characterized by extreme rhetoric, voters in Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District may be yearning for the levelest head.

Rep. Eric Paulsen speaking to supporters on Election Night in 2014.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

For months, there’s been chatter in Washington about how the prospect of a hard right candidate like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz might spell doom for more moderate Republicans down the ballot, including Minnesota’s own 3rd Congressional District representative, Erik Paulsen.

On Saturday, that chatter became something more as DFL state Sen. Terri Bonoff announced her intention to take on Paulsen. Since first winning the seat in 2008 Paulsen has faced only token opposition from Democrats; for someone of Bonoff’s stature — she’s served in the state Senate since 2005 — to mount a challenge indicates that the Democrats might see a real opportunity here.

But even if you buy that potential GOP nominees Trump or Cruz will make relative moderates like Paulsen somewhat more vulnerable, the question remains: what pitch can Bonoff make to the voters of the Third District that will convince them to choose her over a well-liked, four-term incumbent who has never been re-elected with less than 58 percent of the vote?

Bonoff’s pitch to voters: independence

It’s that issue of moderation vs. extremism that will be central to the campaign. Bonoff, whose state Senate district covers parts of Minnetonka and Plymouth, will likely return to her tried-and-true “uniting the middle” campaign slogan in order to win over the 3rd District.

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While Paulsen doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a bomb-thrower, Bonoff will try to outflank him on moderation and independence. On that, she has some cred: on several key votes, she has bucked her DFL colleagues in the statehouse.

In 2007, Bonoff was one of seven Democrats who voted against raising taxes on the state’s highest earners to pay for education programs; during the 2015 legislative session, Bonoff co-authored a bill that would have lowered the state minimum wage for tipped workers to $8 an hour.

At a panel ahead of this year’s legislative session, Bonoff also backed proposals to prohibit municipalities from passing their own family paid leave policies, along with a GOP-approved plan to get rid of a statewide tax on cabins and other businesses.

The Minnetonka Sun-Sailor newspaper noted the very friendly rapport between Bonoff and GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt. “I actually stand with the Senate Democrats,” she noted at one point, jokingly.

Bonoff’s record has proven acceptable to a few key Democratic constituencies: she has a 82 percent rating from the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest labor union, and a 100 percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Yet she has also managed to earn a 57 percent rating from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. 

As chair of the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development panel, Bonoff has focused on public-private sector partnerships. Her signature proposal, she says, is the so-called PIPELINE Project, an apprenticeship and vocational training initiative that connects public schools and students with private employers.

Bonoff: Paulsen not forceful enough against extremism

The PIPELINE project is the kind of idea, Bonoff told MinnPost in an interview, that will set her apart from Paulsen and others who have been in D.C. too long. In her campaign, Bonoff said she plans to “emphasize working in a bipartisan way and leading with bold ideas rather than strong attacks, which is what Washington has become.”

Bonoff will argue that Paulsen is a partisan Republican and out-of-touch with the moderate tendencies of the 3rd District. The DFLer spoke enthusiastically about working with the other side during her time in the Legislature. 

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“I push back against ideas that come from the right that I consider extreme, and when ideas move forward from the left or that side of the spectrum, I push back on that, she said. My allegiance is to the people, not the party. I haven’t seen that from Congressman Paulsen.”

State Sen. Terri Bonoff
MinnPost photo by James Nord
State Sen. Terri Bonoff, whose state Senate district covers parts of Minnetonka and Plymouth, will likely return to her tried-and-true “uniting the middle” campaign slogan in order to win over the 3rd District.

Bonoff brought up Paulsen’s vote to defund Planned Parenthood as an example. “That’s a clear contrast” between her and the incumbent, she said, suggesting that reproductive rights will figure prominently in her campaign.

Beyond that, Bonoff said, Paulsen has stuck with his party on several controversial issues that voters will pay attention to: he has voted numerous times to repeal Obamacare and get rid of the estate tax; he’s voted against regulations on the fossil fuel industry and in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The nonprofit Govtrack.org, which issues report cards for each member of Congress, found that Paulsen was in the most moderate third of GOP congressmen, but ranked fifth out of Minnesota’s eight House members on bipartisanship.

Paulsen looks to link Bonoff with DFL legislature

Bonoff’s moderate profile might make it tough for her to be painted as overly liberal; but just as Democrats will try to connect Paulsen with Trump and Cruz, Republicans will try to connect her with Gov. Mark Dayton and the DFL legislative caucus.

Despite her general eagerness to work with Republicans, Bonoff has stood with the DFL caucus on several prominent issues. In 2007, she voted for a transportation bill that increased the state tax on gas; in the 2013 session, she also voted to raise state legislators’ compensation by 33 percent.

Paulsen’s camp will look to tarnish Bonoff’s independent branding by highlighting these controversial votes. In a preview of that messaging, campaign manager John-Paul Yates said in a statement that “Bonoff’s record will be a heavy, heavy weight around her campaign again. Bonoff raised income, gas and sales taxes on Minnesota families and rewarded herself with a fat 35 percent pay raise.”

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They will also argue Bonoff is a retread candidate: she ran for the DFL endorsement for this seat in 2008, after longtime GOP. Rep Jim Ramstad retired, but lost to Iraq War vet Ashwin Madia. (She did raise $400,000 in the process, though.)

Republicans will also look to burnish Paulsen’s bipartisan credentials against claims that he doesn’t work with Democrats. In Congress, he serves on the influential House Ways and Means Committee, where he has worked with moderate Democrats on trade pacts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. (Bonoff told MinnPost she supports the TPP.)

Last year, Paulsen worked closely with Sen. Amy Klobuchar on the legislation to combat sex trafficking, which was ultimately signed into law by Obama. He was also in the minority of the GOP caucus that voted in 2013 to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.

Paulsen’s signature accomplishment, however, is his successful push to get Obamacare’s medical device tax suspended for two years. The move was supported by Republicans and Democrats alike — not to mention the entire Minnesota congressional delegation — but Paulsen was the effort’s ringleader in the House of Representatives.

That leadership could play especially well in the 3rd District, which is the heart of the Minnesota medical technology sector.

The congressman told MinnPost the tax’s suspension only could’ve happened with bipartisan support, and claimed it’s a testament to his willingness to work across the aisle. “There are only a few members of Congress who can get Democrats to sign a bill over a potential presidential veto, and the president signed it,” he said. “I have a great record of working bipartisanly.”

Bonoff applauded Paulsen’s work on the medical device legislation, but she said she is not concerned his success will hurt her ability to win over voters. “I think people will trust I have their backs on the issues that come down the road, where I’ll be there for them and protect businesses in my district that employ so many residents in my community,” she said.

Minnesota Nice campaign ahead?

While the race in the 3rd District will be no less contentious than any other competitive seat, the two candidates do have temperamental and political similarities, and their debates might feature more nods of agreement than voters are accustomed to.

Both Paulsen and Bonoff talk about the need to overhaul the tax code, both are averse to raising taxes and both support measures to ensure Congress passes a balanced budget every year. In the past, Bonoff has even described herself as a “fiscal conservative.” There is less space between them than, for example, Rep. Rick Nolan and Stewart Mills in the 8th District race.

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For that and other reasons — like fundraising, where Paulsen’s campaign already has $2 million in the bank — Bonoff faces an uphill climb against the incumbent. CD3 voters may not see a compelling reason to replace Paulsen unless the presidential race really goes off the rails, and Democrats are relentless in connecting him with top-of-the-ticket controversy.

That’s how Democrats recruited Bonoff in the first place: the notion that Trump or Cruz would be a major drag on down-ticket races. National Democrats believe the high unfavorability ratings of the two potential GOP candidates among the general electorate could depress the support of incumbents like Paulsen.

Paulsen said that he’s weathered “highly-charged” elections before, and insists it won’t be an issue in 2016. “My temperament fits the district,” he said. “I’m totally focused on getting things done in a bipartisan way. That’s what people want to see.”

Paulsen, who previously endorsed the presidential bid of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, declined to back any of the remaining GOP candidates, saying only that he expects to support the eventual nominee.

He did say he has concerns with the rhetoric of Trump, adding that he pushes back when Republican candidates say things he doesn’t agree with. “I disagreed with President Bush on a number of issues,” he explained, “and said so.”

Still, no one quite knows how presidential politics will affect the 3rd District race — or any other for that matter — and that uncertainty could make this campaign Paulsen’s toughest yet.