How did Erik Paulsen win the ‘Ramstad seat’?

Erik Paulsen at GOP rally in Bloomington last night.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Erik Paulsen at GOP rally in Bloomington last night.

Republican state Rep. Erik Paulsen of Eden Prairie won the “Ramstad seat” by a surprisingly comfortable eight-point margin in a race that was constantly touted, including by me, as an absolute toss-up that was supposed to be one of the closest in the nation.

The final tally: Paulsen, 49 percent; Democrat Ashwin Madia, 41; Independence Party nominee David Dillon, 11.

The district has been Republican hands for 50 years; the result shouldn’t be too surprising. But when Jim Ramstad, the popular nine-term incumbent, announced his retirement, the race was immediately identified as a potential Dem pickup because of the blue wave that seemed to be developing and results from legislative races around the district that suggested moderate Dems could win there.

Paulsen, who as a young man had worked for Ramstad and had the Rammer’s active support throughout the race (he never made a public appearance without mentioning Ramstad), had risen to the second leading position in the state House Republican caucus until recently dropping out of the leadership.

On policy, he is a standard-issue pro-business, anti-tax conservative, who also shares most of the social conservative agenda but tried not to emphasize those issues in his campaign. Paulsen won the Republican endorsement and nomination without any serious opposition, but DFLers felt he was beatable because he was much less moderate than Ramstad.

Low-key campaigner
As a campaigner, he comes across low-key and almost professorial (although his livelihood has been with the Target Corp.), and he tends to like to talk about globalism (with a special interest in China and India) rooted in economic necessity.

Madia was a first-time candidate, a former Republican, an attorney and a Marine veteran recently returned from Iraq where he worked on the creation of a new legal system. The son of immigrants from India, if he had won he would have been just the third congressman of Indian extraction.

He defeated state Sen. Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka and Edina Mayor Jim Hovland (also a converted Republican) for the DFL endorsement. His success against Bonoff was a surprise, since he had no political name or experience coming in, but he won with hustle, organization and a gift for political oratory, especially in front of the kind of small audiences that are key in an endorsement contest.

On substance, he ran to the left of Bonoff during the nomination fight, then emphasized his more conservative positions, especially anti-deficit rhetoric, during the general election.

Dillon, a businessman in the printing and related industries and also a first-time candidate, described himself as a former DFLer and a former Republican. He performed well in debates, but his campaign was overwhelmed by the amount of money and advertising poured into the race by the two bigger parties. Dillon told me that he had high hopes early on that billionaire and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg might provide significant resources to the IP this year. Dillon said Bloomberg engaged in discussions with the IP but ultimately didn’t write the big checks (which might also have a major impact in the Senate race, where Dean Barkley likewise suffered from a lack of money and advertising).

Ugly ads
The advertising wars were ugly on both sides. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee mailed out a particularly outrageous flyer that tried to tie Paulsen to money raised in a Las Vegas strip club. Paulsen had nothing to do with any strip club. Tom Hauser on KSTP gave the flyer an F.

Paulsen put his major late advertising money behind a spot that simultaneously distorted Madia’s position on taxes while accusing Madia of lying about him. (Hauser gave that ad a D.) Democrats also alleged that some of Madia’s allies ran ads that artificially darkened Madia’s skin, allegedly to make him seem more threatening and “other-ish.”

Polls showed the race closer than it turned out to be. I haven’t had a chance to analyze the returns for clues as to how Paulsen’s vote exceeded expectations.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/06/2008 - 04:45 pm.

    I think Madia’s looks had something to do with it, but not the ones in the repub ads: it was how he looked in the tv debate.

    With his very dark complexion there, and his puffy lower lip he came across somewhat threatening.

    He reminded me of Nixon vs Kennedy, where looks were definitely a factor.

    Next time: a better makeup person for the debates.

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