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As goes Minnesota’s Third District, so goes the nation? Where things stand with Dean Phillips’ challenge to Erik Paulsen

Democrats see CD3 as one of their best opportunities to turn a red seat blue. Meanwhile, incumbent Paulsen thinks voters will back his record.

Rep. Erik Paulsen door-knocking on a recent Saturday afternoon.
Rep. Erik Paulsen door-knocking on a recent Saturday afternoon.
MinnPost photo by Sam Brodey

To Erik Paulsen, 2018 is just another election year.

Standing in the parking lot of Champlin Park High School on a recent Saturday afternoon before setting off to knock on doors, the five-term Republican congressman from Minnesota’s 3rd District said that not a whole lot feels different this year.

“There’s more money being spent on the outside,” the congressman told MinnPost, venturing one thing that might be different in 2018. “But I don’t know if there’s too much else that would be different from two years ago. I mean, it’s always a competitive race dynamic. I guess it feels a lot like that again.”

On paper, the 3rd District, which encompasses the suburban communities of the western metro area, has the makings of a perennial battleground district: It has voted for Barack Obama and George W. Bush for president; in 2014, voters here narrowly preferred Republicans Jeff Johnson and Mike McFadden for governor and U.S. Senate.

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Since first winning office in 2008, however, Paulsen has never won by fewer than 13 points. Election after election, Paulen’s moderate tone and noncontroversial, suburban-dad brand has helped ensure the dynamic in CD3, at least when it comes to its U.S. House seat, is hardly ever competitive.

Paulsen may say otherwise, but it’s hard to argue that things in CD3 are same-old, same-old in 2018. Two years after voters here rejected Donald Trump, Paulsen is now waging the fight of his political career against Democratic challenger Dean Phillips, whose campaign has been fueled by the simmering anti-Trump sentiment in the district — something he’s trying to harness toward defeating Paulsen.

Phillips, a multimillionaire son of the Phillips distilling family of Minnesota, is running an energetic campaign that is marketed as slickly as a blue-chip tech startup. He is seen as one of Democrats’ best candidates in these midterms, and so far he’s done what other Democrats here have failed to do: make the unflappable Paulsen really sweat.

With a week to go until Election Day, Paulsen might not only be sweating: He might be losing. The only public polls of CD3 have shown Phillips with healthy leads; meanwhile, Paulsen’s campaign and his GOP allies have blanketed Minnesota airwaves with a scorched-earth strategy of negative advertising.

And unlike past elections, there’s a national spotlight on CD3: It’s the exact kind of district Democrats need to win to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives. After a career of positioning himself above the political fray, Paulsen now finds himself in the thick of it.

Literally running for office

On the leafy streets of Champlin, a suburb along the Mississippi River in the district’s northern edge, Paulsen is going door to door — literally running in jeans and tennis shoes across lawns between homes — to emphasize the message that has never failed him here.

“Minnesotans want their elected leaders to be working and getting things done,” Paulsen said. “Certainly, there’s a little more chatter in the news about dysfunction in Washington. The good news is, I can talk about a positive record of actually getting things done.”

Emerging from a long driveway of a home situated on the river, the congressman said he had just spoken with a man who was disheartened at polarization in D.C.; Paulsen pointed out to him that he ranks number three in Congress for bipartisanship. (The legislative watchdog website GovTrack has Paulsen tied for third place with several other lawmakers, in terms of the number of bills introduced with a lawmaker of the opposite party.)

Paulsen, who says he tries to knock on 200 to 300 doors each day in the campaign’s home stretch, says he almost never hears about Donald Trump in his brief chats with constituents on their doorsteps.

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The congressman would probably like it that way: No other GOP candidate for federal office in Minnesota is as tepid on Trump as he is. In the final stage of the 2016 election, when the infamous Access Hollywood tapes broke, Paulsen declared that he could not support the president. He says he wrote in Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on his presidential ballot, as Hillary Clinton carried CD3 by a nine-point margin and Paulsen outperformed Trump by 16 points.

Over the past two years, Paulsen has gone out of his way to emphasize points of difference between himself and the president. Like many Republicans supportive of free trade, Paulsen doesn’t like the president’s tariff-heavy approach to negotiating trade deals. But another point of daylight between Paulsen and Trump has a distinctly local bent: the issue of mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota.

Paulsen’s colleagues in Congress have worked with the White House to undo obstacles to copper-nickel mining in Superior National Forest that were set up by the Obama administration in late 2016. The Republican has opposed those moves, and is telling voters in CD3 — home to many who enjoy the outdoor opportunities of the Boundary Waters — about it at every turn. (Paulsen’s first campaign ad featured him paddling the pristine wilderness and talking up his independence from his party.)

“At some doors, you may hear, where are you different from the president and the party?” Paulsen said. “But I get a lot of positive feedback on the Boundary Waters, that has definitely resonated with folks. There’s an awareness on that… that crosses party lines.”

While the efforts of Paulsen and others to uphold the Obama administration decisions on mining in northern Minnesota fell short — Trump dealt the final blow in September — the congressman has been a key ally for the president and GOP leadership on their most important legislative priorities.

As a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Paulsen had a role in shaping the Republican-led House’s two biggest bills: one to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and another to implement sweeping tax cuts for people and corporations.

Both pieces of legislation were backed by Trump, and neither earned any Democratic support. Several House Republicans representing Clinton districts voted against both bills, but Paulsen supported both, helping to ensure their narrow passages out of the House. Ultimately, only the tax cut bill became law, and Paulsen — long an advocate for changes like those advanced in the bill — is now broadcasting his support for the tax cuts and what he says are their positive effects on the economy.

“People feel good about the strength of the economy and how well things are going,” Paulsen said. “But on a handful of issues where I’ve been directly outspoken, opposite to the president on trade policy, that’s important around here.”

Making it about Bigfoot

Walking down Water Street in downtown Excelsior a few blocks from his campaign headquarters — situated in a cozy home dubbed the “Conversation Cottage” — Phillips was tailed by an entourage that included his partner Annalise Glick, his brother Tyler, several campaign workers and Bigfoot.

The Phillips campaign scored a publicity coup in September, when his campaign released an ad featuring “Bigfoot,” who was searching to find out whether Paulsen — supposedly in hiding in corporate boardrooms — actually existed.

The ad went viral; now, a campaign staffer in a Bigfoot costume under a shirt that asks “Does Erik Paulsen really exist?” accompanies Phillips on trips like these, a spectacle that sparks conversation with passersby and, on this Saturday before Halloween, either terrifying or delighting their small children in costumes.

Bigfoot is a walking reminder of the central point of Phillips’ candidacy: that Paulsen has gone Washington, acting at the behest of moneyed special interests and making himself inaccessible to the everyday folks he’s supposed to be representing.

Phillips, whose anodyne campaign slogan of “Everyone’s invited!” is more pointed than it seems, seemingly keeps a constant mental note of how much money Paulsen has taken from corporate political action committees and lobbyists — today, the Republican ranked fourth among all members of Congress — and frequently connects that fact to the votes Paulsen took on Obamacare and tax cuts. (Phillips said his opponent is an “example of someone who has been consumed by this system.”)

The 49-year old first-time candidate, long a major donor to Democratic campaigns and causes, has used that critique to animate the policy point he’s running on most heavily: campaign finance and democracy reform. He has attracted national attention for refusing contributions from corporate PACs, lobbyists, or even other members of Congress, and spent much of this campaign urging Paulsen to sign something he called the “Minnesota Way,” a pledge to forego PAC contributions and self-funding in their campaigns.

Paulsen did not agree to the pledge; in October, Phillips put $1.3 million of his own money toward funding his campaign — half of the amount, he says, that Paulsen has received from special interests. The move prompted blistering criticism from Paulsen supporters, who have ridiculed Phillips as a hypocrite on his signature issue. (Phillips responds that he understands the irony of a rich, self-funding candidate running on campaign finance reform. “Frankly, I’ve got to play by some rules I hope to change,” he said. )

Phillips’ sunny and earnest persona is almost cartoonishly consistent — out in Excelsior, he told at least five people they had made his day — but sitting in a Bloomington coffee shop later, he was far less sanguine about the direction this race, which he has been running since April 2017, has taken in its final months.

Walking down Water Street in downtown Excelsior a few blocks from his campaign headquarters, Dean Phillips was tailed by an entourage that included Bigfoot.
MinnPost photo by Sam Brodey
Walking down Water Street in downtown Excelsior a few blocks from his campaign headquarters, Dean Phillips was tailed by an entourage that included Bigfoot.
Paulsen’s campaign had just funded ads that blamed “Shady Dean Phillips” for a sexual harassment scandal at Allina Health, the Minneapolis-based health care nonprofit where Phillips sat on the board of directors for several years. The ad received a D- in a KSTP fact check; the attorney representing female victims of harassment at Allina asked Paulsen to take down the ad.

“I never imagined in my wildest nightmares that a sitting member of Congress would overtly and knowingly run such a dishonest campaign. And that’s sincere,” Phillips told MinnPost. “Being aggressive, being negative is one thing, but being dishonest — even in the face of being called out on that dishonesty — and doubling down on it, unfortunately is a symptom of a much more significant disease in this country.”

The tone of the ads in this race, which has attracted $10.5 million in outside spending, have become a top campaign issue in their own right. One woman stopped Phillips in Excelsior and told him she would be voting for him because of those “asshole ads” from Republicans — a sentiment that was repeated by others who came up to talk to the candidate.

Phillips hates the ads — including, he insists, the $3.5 million worth of ads run by Democrats attacking Paulsen to benefit him — and cites them as a reason why his campaign finance reforms are necessary. But he credits Paulsen for “going nuclear,” as he puts it. “Nobody knew who I was until Erik Paulsen started advertising,” he said. “I didn’t think there might be a silver lining in his miserable approach, but it did give me name recognition I never would have been able to generate without him. I’m grateful to him for that.”

Workhorse or showhorse?

Phillips may decry the direction of the race, but most observers and public polls are signaling it has developed in his favor. A win in CD3 for Democrats, said St. Cloud State political scientist James Cottrill, could be a bellwether for their fortunes nationally, and whether they can pick up the 23 seats they need to win control of the U.S. House on Nov. 6.

In early September, a New York Times/Siena College poll found Phillips with a nine-point lead over Paulsen; later in the month, a KSTP/SurveyUSA poll gave Phillips a five-point advantage. (The Paulsen campaign has not made public any of its own surveys.) In response, several nonpartisan election forecasters, like the Cook Political Report, have moved the CD3 race from a “toss-up” to one that “leans Democratic.”

The KSTP poll also found that one out of six voters surveyed who supported Paulsen in 2016 are now supporting Phillips. That statistic has put some evidence behind a Phillips campaign strategy of putting the spotlight on former Paulsen voters who have defected to the Democrat. (In response to that, Paulsen said “they can make up whoever they want.”)

Some Republicans believe Paulsen’s reputation insulates him from an unfavorable national environment for Republican candidates — and the challenge posed by a tougher opponent. They often bring up the high hopes Democrats placed in state Sen. Terri Bonoff, who ran in 2016 when many believed that linking Paulsen to Trump would sink him.

Annette Meeks, CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota and the former running mate for Tom Emmer in the 2010 governor campaign, said Paulsen’s reputation as a hard worker will protect him in 2018. “Every two years, the DCCC thinks they have the perfect candidate to defeat Erik and they never do,” Meeks said, referencing Democrats’ House campaign arm. “He’s just a terrific congressman.”

Democrats counter that they finally have a candidate who has what it takes to defeat Paulsen. Gretchen Wronka, a retired librarian from Bloomington, has been active in CD3 DFL politics for years. At the DFL field office across the highway from Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, Wronka told MinnPost “I haven’t seen this much energy about a candidate since Paul Wellstone.”

Though Trump is unpopular in CD3 — the KSTP poll had his approval rating 18 points underwater — Phillips doesn’t spend much time attacking him directly. Unlike Democratic candidates in other districts who are focusing intensely on bread-and-butter issues like health care, Phillips is running primarily on fixing what he says is a broken political system. The number one issue for voters, he told MinnPost, is “anxiety” and “fatigue” over the division plaguing the political system.

“Many people, an extraordinary number of Republican-leaning people, independents, are voting singularly for a check on this administration, plain and simple,” Phillips said.

Paulsen admitted some frustration with the president’s messaging, which lately has focused more on wedge issues like immigration and the migrant “caravan” than on achievements like the tax bill, on which Paulsen is staking much of his re-election in this business-friendly district, the state’s most affluent.

“I think people may be happy with tax cuts, but I don’t think the president is out there talking about those things,” Paulsen said. “All of a sudden [he] is moving on to something else and is chatting about something else that might not be as important to people around here.” (Something else that may not have helped: Trump’s endorsement, via Twitter, of Paulsen, which came last week. Phillips’ campaign blasted out the president’s “Strong Endorsement” of their opponent in a press release.)

Despite headwinds that are clear to others, Paulsen insists that 2018 is the same as cycles past. “I always run hard, run strong, and I’m not going to be out-hustled,” he said. “The bottom line is, the race will come down to being, do you want someone who has a bipartisan record of getting stuff done, someone who walks the walk, versus a lot of people who go to Washington and they just want to be show horses or talk. They want to be someone rather than doing something.”

“My style of leadership,” Paulsen said, “is appreciated by a lot of folks I represent.”