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What saved Angie Craig, once one of Congress’ most vulnerable incumbents?

A MinnPost analysis of Tuesday’s vote shows that Craig outperformed Kistner in Dakota County, running well ahead of him in Eagan, Apple Valley and Burnsville, while trailing her Republican challenger, but not by much, in Lakeville.

Rep. Angie Craig speaking to members of the press at her election night gathering in Savage.
Rep. Angie Craig speaking to members of the press at her election night gathering in Savage.
MinnPost photo by Evan Frost

WASHINGTON – While Rep. Angie Craig was considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the House, concerns about restrictions on abortion, partisan differences on who’s to blame for inflation and a higher than average turnout of young voters in the 2nd District helped propel her to re-election.

On Tuesday, Craig defeated Republican rival Tyler Kistner, 51% -46%. A Marijuana Now Party candidate who died last month, but whose name was still on the ballot, drew a little more than 3% of the vote and without that third candidate, Craig’s margin may have been broader.

She joked Wednesday that her margin of victory was “a landslide for the 2nd District,” which she says has equal number of Democratic, Republican and independent voters.

Since she was first elected to Congress in 2018, Craig has had very narrow victories, including the one she eked out in a former race against Kistner in 2020.

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What changed the dynamic this year, in which the GOP was expected to lay waste to Democrats in swing districts like Craig’s?

Several things. Perhaps the most important was that Democrats were able to hold onto their gains in the nation’s suburbs – the 2nd District is composed of both suburban Twin Cities and more rural areas.

A MinnPost analysis of Tuesday’s vote shows that Craig outperformed Kistner in Dakota County, running well ahead of him in Eagan, Apple Valley and Burnsville, while trailing her Republican challenger, but not by much, in Lakeville.

2nd Congressional District results by city for larger district cities
Note: Data as of Wednesday morning. Results are not considered official until they are canvassed.
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

Craig also won more votes than Kistner in Cottage Grove, West St. Paul, North, St. Paul and many of the district’s larger towns, while Kistner was the favorite candidate of voters in the district’s smaller towns and rural areas.

Craig won those areas of the district largely because that’s where Democratic voters are concentrated. But they are also home to independents, who in the midterm seem to have broken for Democrats. According to national exit polls, Democrats carried these independent voters by 49%-47%.

Craig said knew exactly when those voters started to swing her way – when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a decades-old decision that legalized early term abortions.

 “The mood shifted just then,” Craig said.

The Democrat hit Kistner, relentlessly, on his “pro-life” stance, something that seems to have resonated.

A group of St. Olaf College students fanned out across the 2nd District on Election Day, something they have been doing since 2008, to conduct an exit poll of voters in 14 precincts. St. Olaf political science professor Christopher Chapp said his students chose to poll the busiest precincts.

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The students found that 2nd District voters differed sharply on the most important issue in the midterm.

About 49% of Craig supporters said abortion was the most important issue, followed by inflation/economy, at about 16%. Then came election integrity, 13.6% and healthcare at nearly 11%.

Meanwhile, nearly 70% of Kistner’s supporters ranked inflation and/or the economy as the most important issue, followed by abortion (9.2%) and crime (7.6%).

Rep. Angie Craig defeated Republican rival Tyler Kistner, 51% -46%.
MinnPost photo by Evan Frost
Rep. Angie Craig defeated Republican rival Tyler Kistner, 51% -46%.
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said “abortion was more important than we all thought it was” since some polls showed that it’s importance was fading.

“But it had an enormous impact on 4 out of 10 voters,” Jacobs said. “For many voters it was the most important issue.”

Jacobs also said a “partisanship is a firebreak” that shielded Democrats like Craig from voter concerns about the economy and inflation. Even with President Biden’s low popularity ratings, Democrats were much less willing than Republicans to blame the president for economic ills or make them a major factor when choosing a candidate.

There are other indications that Biden’s unpopularity may not have impacted Craig’s race – at least not much. Amy Walters of the Cook Political Report has focused this year on a group of voters who she dubbed the “meh voters.”

Those voters are not happy with the job Biden is doing but were willing to support a Democratic candidate for Congress. According to exit polls, among those who “somewhat” disapproved of Biden, 49% voted for the Democrat and 45% voted for the Republican,” Walters said.

“Meh voters” who told exit pollsters that they did not think the economy was either “good” or “poor, but instead rated it “not so good” voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, 62%-35%, Walters said.

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Help from young voters

Megan Peery, a student at St. Olaf College and a first time voter, is far from being a “meh voter.”  The sophomore, who wants to be a social worker, said she comes from a politically engaged family who held an election watch party for former President Obama when he was first elected in 2008.

Megan Peery
Megan Peery
“The social issues are the ones that I care about the most,” Peery, 19, said, ticking off abortion rights, social welfare programs and immigration.

She said she voted for Craig because “I care about who is representing the country.”

St. Olaf College has won awards for the high voter turnout of its students, and nearby Carleton College students turned out heavily on Election Day, in the town of Northfield, where the colleges are located. Kistner received about 2,000 votes while Craig won more than 9,000.

But younger voters across the nation voted in greater numbers this year, helping Democrats like Craig.

Exit polls showed that 18 to 29 year olds, motivated by concerns about abortion restrictions, climate change and threats to democracy, were energized to turn out in greater numbers than usual for a midterm.

An Edison Research National Election Pool exit poll found that 63% of those young Americans voted for a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House, while 35% of young Americans backed Republican candidates.

“The kids hit it out of the park,” said Craig, who said she campaigned heavily on the campuses of St. Olaf and Carlton colleges.

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Craig also burnished her moderate credentials in the race.

“I’ve always trusted the voters of Minnesota to want someone who could reach across the aisle,” she said.

However, not all moderate Democrats survived on Tuesday night. Craig was part of a wave of Democratic women who flipped Republican-held seats in 2018. Some of those women, including Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., and Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, were defeated.

Yet Jacobs said the 2nd District is becoming slightly more Democratic and more hospitable for candidates like Craig.

“Angie Craig is moving much more into a more moderate-Democrat trending direction,” he said.