WASHINGTON — Rep. Angie Craig said “Republicans see their path to power are running right through the 2nd District of Minnesota.”
This much is true: Craig is one of the most vulnerable U.S. House Democrats and her defeat by Republican Tyler Kistner would help the GOP win the additional seats it needs – at least five – to win control of the chamber.
Craig’s rival agrees. “You can’t control Congress unless you control the swing districts,” Kistner said.
The Craig/Kistner rematch of their 2020 race has been characterized by attacks by both candidates on each other and a torrent of national Republican Party and Democratic Party ads in what’s considered one of the most expensive House races.
Few would bet on the outcome of this hotly contested political battle. The little polling in the race shows a dead heat, despite the millions of dollars spent and the mudslinging, nothing seemed to move the needle.
Craig, who narrowly won her race against Kistner in 2020, said she expected a hot race and has been preparing for one.
“I woke up the morning of 2020 knowing my next race would be a margin of error race,” she said.
National Republican Party PACs have spent more than $12 million running attack ads against Craig – putting an additional $270,000 into the effort in the home stretch of the campaign and national Democrats have spent nearly that much attacking Kistner.
The candidates have also launched attacks on each other.
Craig has accused Kistner of using campaign funds for personal use (he’s had sizable reimbursements for using his personal car for campaign purposes), fudging his stance on abortion and misrepresenting his military career as a former marine.
Kistner says he’s always been pro-life, except in cases of rape or when the life of a mother is threatened. And his campaign says Kistner’s career in the military has been misrepresented by GOP groups who were working independently to boost the Republican candidate.
The House Republicans’ Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC briefly ran a television ad that said Kistner, a former Marine Ranger, had served in four combat missions overseas. And the SEAL PAC, a political action committee aimed at electing conservative veterans to Congress, recently touted in a digital ad Kistner’s record as an “Iraq War combat veteran.” Kistner has not served in Iraq or in combat, but has served in three missions overseas.
“We don’t control these groups,” said Billy Grant, a consultant for the Kistner campaign. He also said the campaign sought to take the misleading ads down “right away.”
The SEAL PAC ad, however, ran for 15 days before it was taken down on Oct. 25.
Meanwhile, Kistner, with the backing of the Minnesota Republican Party, accused Craig of a tax-payer funded mailing that he said violated House ethics laws by being too political and mailed during a 60-day “blackout period” before the election.
However the mailer in question was approved by a bipartisan House commission and does not seem to have been mailed during the blackout period.
Kistner’s campaign has also accused Craig of featuring the endorsement of “fake Republicans who don’t live in her district” in her campaign ads.
In one of Craig’s ad, she featured a man who praised her efforts to reduce drug costs. While the man called himself a “lifelong Republican,” Kistner’s campaign said he voted in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, but the Craig campaign has provided a card with the man’s name that identifies him as member of the Minnesota GOP.
The Kistner campaign also said Craig’s supporter lives outside the 2nd District. Craig’s campaign said the supporter was redistricted out of her district this year. The television ad is no longer running.
Kistner has also tried to tie Craig to unpopular member of her party, including President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
With voter anger over the Supreme Court’s abortion decision seeming to abate, Democrats, including Craig, pivoted to accusing GOP opponents of seeking to cut Medicare and Social Security – long considered third rails in American politics.
In an ad run by the Craig campaign, a voiceover says that Kistner wants to raise the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare. The GOP campaign blueprint called the “Commitment to America” was vague on Social Security and Medicare, simply saying the party would “save and strengthen” the programs. But the Republican Study Committee, an influential group of House Republicans, are promoting a plan that would raise the Medicare eligibility rate to 67 and Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., has unveiled a plan that would require Congress to vote to renew Medicare and Social Security every five years.
Still, Kistner has not said he wants changes to the popular programs and said the ad shows “what a failing and desperate campaign looks like.” Despite the sniping, one thing is clear. Voters in the 2nd District have a clear choice between a centrist Democrat and a conservative Republican.
A fight to the finish
Craig has fought for local police funding and endorsements from law enforcement officers, distanced herself from Biden – she said the Democratic Party needs a new generation of leadership – and touted her accomplishment in two terms of office.
That include pushing for a $35 cap on insulin prices, which was only a partial victory because the Inflation Reduction Act only set the cap for Medicare recipients.
Craig also pressed Democratic House leaders to allow votes on legislation that would prohibit members of Congress from being able to trade stocks. That effort was derailed because those Democratic leaders expanded the proposed ban to include the White House, the Supreme Court and other federal workers – and their families – besides members of Congress.
Meanwhile Kistner has embraced the House GOP agenda, which calls for tax cuts and reductions in government spending and is campaigning vigorously on the “bread and butter” issue of inflation. Rising costs for food, gas, home mortgages and almost all consumer products have become a key voter concern and helped GOP candidates across the nation win traction in the last few weeks before the election.
“I’m raising the issues that are facing the majority of people in Minnesota,” Kistner said. “Minnesota temperatures are dropping while energy prices are rising.”
Craig estimated that a third of the district’s voters are Democrats, a third are Republican and most of the rest are unaffiliated.
To make matters more complicated, Paula Overby, of the Legal Marijuana Now party, will be on the ballot, although she died last month. That’s an eerie repeat of the death of Adam Weeks, the Legal Marijuana Now candidate running for the 2nd District seat in 2020, who died shortly before the election, but was also on the ballot on Election Day. Weeks drew about 6% of the votes in that very close election.
It’s not clear whether Overby will draw as much support as Weeks did in 2020, but any votes for the deceased candidate will impact the outcome of the contest.
And there are other factors that can make a difference.
“This is the type of district where turnout matters,” said Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Craig has asked other Democrats for help. Those include Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a progressive firebrand who was active in the Trump impeachment trials and in the January 6 Committee investigating the storming of the U.S. Capitol. Craig has also had Douglas Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, come to the district to campaign for her.
She said she hoped those fellow Democrats will energize her party’s base. She’s also targeting younger voters.
“If young people turn out, I will win this race,” Craig said.
Kistner, meanwhile, has had campaigning help from U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. He said he’s spending the last few days of the campaign reaching out in person for 2nd District residents for their support.
“What is comes down to, is meeting voters face to face and discussing the issues,” Kistner said.
However, the slew of negative ads that are blanketing the airwaves may turn off voters from both parties in a race where turnout may be key.
Gillespie said there are several reasons why Craig and Kistner are running neck and neck.
One is that redistricting has divided the nation’s congressional districts largely into safe Democratic and safe Republican strongholds, leaving far fewer swing districts like the 2nd District, which has been represented in Congress by both Democrats and Republicans.
Another reason, to which Gillespie gives greater credence, is the phenomenon of “ideological sorting,” or of the Democratic Party appealing to liberals and progressives and the Republican Party appealing to conservatives. That spelled the end of many liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats and many centrists as a whole.
“It’s the middle that is now shaky,” Gillespie said. “Everyone is predicting Democrats will lose seats in the U.S. House and the ones most likely to lose are the Democratic moderates.”
So Craig’s defeat – and the defeats of other endangered Democrats in Nov. 8 elections, most of whom are fellow centrists, would push the party further to the left.
“Often what happens in a midterm is that the more moderate members – who also are the ones who generally occupy the more marginal seats – end up losing, which can leave behind a smaller caucus with a greater percentage of more ideological members,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Craig’s most recent campaign ad says she battles her party on issues like police funding, works in a bipartisan fashion and asks district voters to return her to Congress. She’s aware of the headwinds she’s battling.
“My eyes are wide open heading to the finish line,” she said.