WASHINGTON — Jill Abahsain never thought of running for Congress before last spring, when she was asked by a local DFL official to challenge Republican Rep. Michelle Fischbach for Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District seat.
“She (the DFL official) said ‘we don’t have a candidate,’’’ Abahsain said. “And I agreed to run because I don’t believe someone should run unopposed.”
Abahsain is not a political neophyte. She ran, unsuccessfully as a DFL candidate for state Senate in 2020 for District 12. She’s also been active in her community and a Planned Parenthood volunteer. But, like most who are challenging Minnesota’s congressional incumbents in November’s mid-term elections this year, Abahsain has struggled to raise campaign cash.
In the latest reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission, Abahsain’s campaign reported raising less than $10,000 for her race, while Fischbach reported raising more than $1.4 million.
“For a congressional campaign, it is way underfunded,” Abahsain conceded. “I’m running a threadbare but nimble campaign.”
And, like others challenging congressional incumbents in Minnesota, Abahsain is running in a district where her party is disadvantaged. Voters in the 7th District supported former President Trump over President Biden 63% to 34%.
Still, year after year, underdog candidates like Abahsain run for Congress, trying to beat tremendous odds. Incumbents to the U.S. House of Representatives enjoyed a nearly 95% re-election rate in 2020 and that winning record isn’t expected to change much this year.
“At the end of the day, everyone runs for Congress for their own reasons, and it’s difficult to assign blanket motivations to a whole swath of candidates,” said Jacob Rubashkin of Inside Elections. “Some folks do it out of a sense of obligation, they feel that voters should always have a choice, even if it’s one where the outcome is easy to predict. If no one else is going to run, they will.”
A native Minnesotan who lives in Sauk Centre, Abahsain spent 25 years in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and said she witnessed autocratic governments and undemocratic elections. So she felt strongly that Fischbach should be challenged. She also said running against Fischbach allows her to interact and engage with like-minded DFL’s and other district residents, which she said she enjoys.
“It’s cathartic,” Abahsain said of her race. “It allows you to speak to people instead of just yelling at the television.”
Rubashkin said some challengers probably don’t buy into arguments that their election is a longshot, or they truly believe that they can be the rare candidate to pull off an upset.
“In the age of Trump and AOC (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY), there are a lot of prominent examples of people who were ascribed little to no chance winning their election,” he said.
For Jen Schultz, who is challenging Rep. Pete Stauber, R-8th District, the long-shot role model is former Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, who ran against two-term GOP incumbent Rudy Boschwitz in 1990. Widely seen as an underdog, Wellstone was heavily outspent by Boschwitz and won his upset victory through grassroots campaigning tactics.
“I remember when they discounted Wellstone,” Schultz said.
Like Abahsain, Schultz had no plans to run for Congress when she decided to retire from the state House after serving eight years. She initially declined to run when asked by the Farmers Union to challenge Stauber.
“I basically said no, then they asked me again,” Schultz said. “It’s not an easy decision to run for Congress. I just felt it was my duty to give people a choice.”
University of Minnesota political science professor Michael Minta said it’s helpful for the party’s to put up a candidate, even if the odds of winning are stacked against that candidate, to encourage party voters to go to the polls.
“Parties still need to get people to turn out to vote,” Minta said.
He said that, in congressional districts where a party is at a disadvantage, the party needs voters to turn out to help its candidates in state-wide races that are close.
“They are looking at the larger picture,” Minta said.
The Wellstone effect
Jeanne Hendricks, a Democrat running to unseat Rep. Tom Emmer, R-6h District, may have the toughest race.
Emmer, who heads the National Republican Campaign Committee, has resources Hendricks can only dream of, and stands to win a GOP House leadership post if he helps his party wrest control of the chamber from the Democratic Party in November’s midterms.
A nurse anesthetist, Hendricks said she was motivated to run for Congress by Trump’s presidency, and what she said were the “propaganda and lies” it engendered.
She said she believes Emmer is too aligned with Trump’s policies – and not with the district’s priorities. But she knows hers is an uphill climb.
“I very much understand that because of the history of the district,” Hendricks said. “But that’s changing.”
The 6th District has not been represented by a Democrat in Congress since 2003. And it gave Trump a 58% to 38% win over Biden in 2020.
Hendricks said people tell hear she is in a David vs Goliath situation.
“Well, I kind of like how that turned out,” Hendricks said she tells those naysayers.
Like Shultz, Hendricks pointed to Wellstone’s surprise victory as proof an underdog can have its day.
“Anything can happen,” she said.
Minnesota’s congressional races also feature some GOP long-shot challengers.
One is May Lor Xiong, a St. Paul resident who is challenging Rep. Betty McCollum, D-4th District. That St. Paul-centered district has not been represented by a Republican since 1949 and has been McCollum’s seat since 2001.
Still, Lor Xiong, a Hmong refugee, said she is running as a Republican in a very Democratic district to protect what she views as the deterioration of an “American Dream” that is “under attack by the left.”
Another conservative long-shot is Republican Cicely Davis, who is taking on progressive icon Rep. Ilhan Omar in the 5th Congressional District. Unlike other political underdogs, Davis has raised an amazing amount of campaign cash – more than $2.2 million.
Besides raising a lot of out-of-state money, Davis has also developed a somewhat of a national profile among Republicans from who abhor Omar’s progressiveness.
Rubashkin said “there are ‘ways to win’ even if you don’t actually win the election.”
“Running for office can raise your profile, and set yourself up for another run down the line, perhaps when the politics are more favorable,” he said. “It can put you in line for another, non-elected job in government. It can be a credential in the business world.”
An example is former Minnesota GOP leader Jennifer Carnahan. In 2016 Carnahan ran a longshot campaign against DFL incumbent Sen. Bobby Joe Champion in Minnesota’s 59th Senate District. Though Carnahan was easily defeated in the solidly DFL district, his challenger emerged a year later to be elected head of the state GOP – a position she held until 2021.
And Rubashkin added “in this day and age” longshot candidates “can go on to secure book contracts or media gigs.”
And there’s always this to remember. Most recent U.S. presidents – including Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Barack Obama, lost elections, but used the lessons they learned to score future victories.