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

With less than 50 days to go until the election, 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.

Rep. Erik Paulsen
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.
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig

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.

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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.”