Two major political handicappers find Minnesota’s Third District slipping out of Erik Paulsen’s grasp

Rep. Erik Paulsen
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig
Adding to speculation about Rep. Erik Paulsen’s precarious situation is the lack of internal polling of his own to help advance a narrative that he’s in a strong position for November.

Heading into the 2018 midterms, it was clear 3rd District Rep. Erik Paulsen was in for the fight of his political life: Although the Republican congressman has easily won five terms in this moderate, west metro district, opposition to President Donald Trump runs high here, and national Democrats have put it high on their target list as they go all-in on a campaign to win control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

With less than 50 days to go until the election, though, Paulsen may be in for more than just a tough fight: Two major election forecasters said this week that it’s more likely than not that the congressman will be out of a job next January.

The Cook Political Report and the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics are two of the most prominent outlets that assess the competitiveness of U.S. House, Senate, and governor’s races. To this point, they had rated the contest between Paulsen and Democratic challenger Dean Phillips as a “toss-up,” along with about two dozen other House races around the country.

As of Thursday, each outlet had shifted the CD3 race into the “leans Democratic” column — putting Paulsen in a small group of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents up for re-election in a midterm cycle that is expected to be very favorable to Democrats.

“Stylistically, the mild-mannered and neighborly Erik Paulsen is a good fit for this highly college-educated suburban Minneapolis seat,” the Cook Report’s David Wasserman wrote, adding that Paulsen outperformed Trump in 2016 in CD3 by 16 points. (CD3 is one of 23 districts held by a Republican and carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016.)

“But in a stunning turn, he’s now trailing badly in polls and on the verge of being abandoned by his party, in part because his votes for the GOP health care and tax bills shredded his moderate credentials,” Wasserman said.

Paulsen, wrote UVA’s Kyle Kondik, is “clearly losing to [his] Democratic challenger,” adding “the results basically make sense: One would expect Republicans in affluent, highly-educated suburban seats to be struggling in this kind of environment.”

A big reason behind both outlets’ shift of the CD3 race toward Phillips is the result of a New York Times/Siena College poll, conducted earlier in September, that showed the Democrat with a 9 point advantage over Paulsen after surveying 500 voters. It was the first significant public poll for the CD3 race, and of the 17 battleground House races nationwide where the Times and Siena have conducted polls, Phillips had one of the biggest leads of any candidate.

A new poll conducted by Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling and commissioned by health care advocacy group Protect Our Care also shows Phillips with a sizable advantage over Paulsen. Phillips has a 13-point lead over Paulsen in that poll, notching 52 percent of support over Paulsen’s 39 percent among the 538 respondents in the poll.

The poll, which focused on voter attitudes about health care in CD2 and CD3, also found that 56 percent of those polled had an unfavorable view of Trump, and of GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act — both of which could influence the outcome in those key races.

Adding to speculation about Paulsen’s precarious situation is the lack of internal polling of his own to help advance a narrative that he’s in a strong position for November. Another GOP incumbent facing a tough fight, 2nd District Rep. Jason Lewis, pushed an internal poll in September showing him with a 1 point advantage over his DFL challenger, Angie Craig. There’s been no similar polling from Paulsen.

Cook’s Wasserman said the NYT/Siena poll result mirrors private data collected by both Republican and Democratic groups. Given heavy Democratic investments in TV ad time to attack Paulsen, “GOP outside groups have begun discussing shifting funds elsewhere,” he writes. It’s worth noting, however, that two major GOP outside groups, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, have spent millions of dollars backing up Paulsen, who is a close ally of Speaker Paul Ryan and the establishment Republicans who fuel the party’s big money efforts, and there’s no concrete indication yet they may wind down their investment in CD3.

The moves from Cook and UVA put Paulsen in a small group: incumbent Republicans who are not favored to win re-election. Of the 10 races Cook rates as “lean Democratic,” Paulsen is one of five GOP congressmen present. Lewis is in that group, but the freshman Republican has long been considered a top target for Democrats. Also in the category are Iowa Rep. Rod Blum, considered perhaps the GOP’s most vulnerable incumbent, and Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock, who represents a swath of suburban northern Virginia that has grown rapidly more favorable to Democrats.

UVA, meanwhile, rates 17 House races as “lean Democratic,” and Paulsen is one of five GOP incumbents in that category. Along with Paulsen, UVA added to the list this week Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman, who is losing ground in a Denver-area district that Clinton won. (CD2 is still rated as a “toss-up” by that outlet, along with the open-seat races in Minnesota’s 1st and 8th Districts.)

Before Democrats get too excited about their chances to knock off Paulsen, UVA’s Kondik offered a caveat. “Even in a bad environment, one or more of these incumbents could still win, as several of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents did in 2006 even amidst a wave,” he wrote of the Republicans in lean-Democratic races.

“In any event, we give all three,” Kondik wrote, referring to Paulsen, Comstock, and Coffman, “less than 50-50 odds at this point.”

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 09/20/2018 - 11:33 am.

    I’m a pretty conservative guy. The recent negative TV adds that Erik Paulsen and his supporters have run have really turned me off. People, including a lot of Republicans, are really getting tired of this crap. I’d be inclined to vote against him, just because of the tone of his TV commercials.

    • Submitted by Ginger Kulka on 09/20/2018 - 12:47 pm.

      I totally agree with you. These negative ads show me a desperate candidate who is afraid to face his constituents in town hall meetings and resorts to smearing his opponent with partial facts twisted to infer doubts about his character. I’ve voted for Paulson in the past but never again.

      • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 09/21/2018 - 08:43 am.

        Contrast the typical (grey, slow motion, lots of words on the screen, ominous voice) negative attack ads with the funny Sasquatch ad by Dean Phillips.

    • Submitted by jody rooney on 09/20/2018 - 03:46 pm.

      I don’t live in the third district but I had a pretty fair opinion of Eric Paulsen up until the tax cut and health care votes. The negative TV ads however are way over the top. I sure hope it isn’t a Minnesota firm is advising him because I would like to think Minnesotan’s are smarter than that.

    • Submitted by Richard Parker on 09/21/2018 - 12:11 am.

      Amen! It seems the GOP Superpac and Congress Committee aren’t able to come up with any positive points to make about their own candidates — they trash Angie Craig as a crook, too. I’m sure sick of the negative ads, especially these, and I hope they’re turning viewers away from the GOP but not making them so disgusted they don’t vote.

      • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 09/21/2018 - 12:44 pm.

        An interesting pat of the anti-Angie Craig ad is the portraying of her anonymous and evil employer as being corrupt.

        For crying out loud, she worked at St Jude Medical, about as good a corporate citizen as you are going to find.

        So now the GOP wants to drive them out? Crazytown…

        • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/21/2018 - 09:27 pm.

          Yeah, you’ve got to love the irony of conservatives painting corporations as evil.

          No matter how cynical I get, it’s almost impossible to keep up.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/21/2018 - 11:22 am.

      That’s something I’ve been wondering about. I don’t live in the Third, and wouldn’t vote for Paulsen anyway, but it struck me that the only ads I’ve seen from him are anti-Phillips ads. I have seen nothing that touts his achievements in Congress.

      The only conclusion I can draw is that Paulsen realizes he is not popular, and his only chance is to turn potential Phillips voters off from the idea of voting.

    • Submitted by Mark Bliven on 09/21/2018 - 03:26 pm.

      I am so puzzled by the Republican campaigns in both districts. They are essentially trying to describe Angie Craig and Dean Phillips as traditional heartless Republicans. Why? Are they trying to convince Democrats that the incumbents care more about healthcare and worker rights? Just seems to be a goofy strategy since the incumbents have a clear record of working and voting against universal health care and worker rights. Do the Republicans not have a single positive message for their constituents? At least in the 1st they are using the carpetbagger attack that unfortunately for the Republicans clearly applies to their current 2nd District Rep Jason Lewis and seems to support the 4th generation DFL candidate in the 8th.

      No wonder Jeff Johnson can’t get anything going with such a party that can’t figure out what kind of message they have. “We Love and Adore Trump” only gets you so far. Making legitimate small government conservatives confused about what their party stands for can only be a disaster in the making.

  2. Submitted by doug hall on 09/20/2018 - 12:11 pm.

    I agree with the last comment and sent emails to Representative Paulsen and the NRCC. These negative ads have flipped me to support Phillips, the first time ever after supporting the Republican in MN 3rd all my life.
    This negative vitriol is an example of what is wrong in politics today.

  3. Submitted by Brian Simon on 09/20/2018 - 12:50 pm.

    It is amusing to me that the Cook Report’s assessment of Paulsen’s suitability for the district is based wholly on style and ignores how his hard right voting record is far more conservative than the district he represents.

    • Submitted by Tory Koburn on 09/20/2018 - 01:28 pm.

      A valid point, though it’s worth nothing that in this political climate, style over substance is something that can’t be ignored. Unfortunately for Paulsen, his “neighborly” reputation has been damaged by his rather transparent unwillingness to actually meet and talk with voters. Without that affable style or a voting record to run on, he really has nothing behind him but the millions of (out of state) dollars in extremely negative campaign ads – which just turns people off him even more.

  4. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 09/20/2018 - 12:59 pm.

    See yah Mr. Paulsen.

  5. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 09/20/2018 - 03:06 pm.

    Reportedly, Paulsen’s ad:

    “Dean Phillips does not pay his taxes”

    Relates to an $89.00 late fee on an overdue property tax bill several years ago. 10 Years in congress and that is the best Erik Paulsen can come up with as a compelling reason to send him back for 2 more years? Enough already: no more “Look like Ramstad, vote like Bachmann” for the 3rd district.

  6. Submitted by Tory Koburn on 09/20/2018 - 03:34 pm.

    Taking out my crystal ball, it’s entirely possible that the 2 suburban districts represented by republicans and 2 of the 3 rural ones represented by democrats will flip. The divide between Greater MN and the Metro will be even more crystallized.

    It’s worth noting that Collin Peterson (already one of the most conservative dems in the house) has faced tighter and tighter re-election margins each term. It’s entirely possible that, in a few years, we’ll have solid blue metro and solid red outstate.

    • Submitted by jody rooney on 09/20/2018 - 03:52 pm.

      Agricultural interests in Minnesota would be foolish to not vote for Collin Peterson. He represents their district well and very successfully as far as representing their interests and he doesn’t become distracted by other issues that are marginal to their interests. Whether you agree with him or not on general politics he has always done right by his district. He wields a great deal of power for an opposite party Congressman from Minnesota and he rarely makes poor decisions. As near as I can tell that is the gold standard for a congressman these days.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/21/2018 - 07:11 am.

      It’s easy to see a 4-4 split in the MN Congressional delegation after the election. It’s also easy to see splits of 5-3, 6-2, and even 7-1. Much of the election is already baked in, but in close races, like CD1 & CD8, the balance can tip late in the game.

      And while I would not bet on a 7-1 split without getting some generous odds, I beleive Don Trump’s odds of losing the popular vote and winning the electoral vote were about one in seven. Unlikely events do happen.

  7. Submitted by Becky Beerling on 10/17/2018 - 08:55 pm.

    I agree that the negative adds are pretty awful. Admittedly I am not a Paulsen voter but his adds are even more of a tun off. And the other day my 11 year old daughter asked me who is Dean Phillips, on the TV they say he has done the most horrible things. I just think we are above this. Stick to the issues.

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