October 2019 is the new October 2020.
This month, the Republican National Committee spent about $330,000 on television ads in Minnesota’s Second District. Shortly afterward, House Majority Forward, a Democratic-Party-affiliated group, committed about $243,000 in counter-advertising.
The RNC’s ads, targeting freshman Democrat Angie Craig, say she “votes with the radicals” for “endless investigations.” One ad charges her with wasting taxpayer money by focusing on investigations of President Trump, not lowering prescription drug costs, and not creating jobs.
More than a year out from the 2020 election, with no endorsed Republican challenger, outside groups are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Second District. Christopher Terry, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies political advertising and regulation, said he’s never seen anything like this on this side of the St. Croix river.
“I don’t think it’s unprecedented,” Terry said of this kind of money being spent in American politics, “but I think it’s unprecedented for Minnesota.”
“I think it puts a target right on two. Two has got a gigantic bullseye on it next year.”
5.6 percentage points
Craig won her district in 2018 by 5.6 percentage points, defeating Republican incumbent Jason Lewis, who is now running for Senate against Sen. Tina Smith. Until he retired in 2017, the district was represented by Republican John Kline, who was first elected in 2003 and eventually served as the chair of the Committee on Education and the Workforce.
The Cook Political Report, which has long rated the chances of House candidates, says the district leans Democratic. But Republicans have suggested many times that they think the district as winnable. The National Republican Congressional Committee placed Craig on its target list for 2020. In 2016, Trump won the district 46.07 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 44.88 percent.
“Angie Craig has said she is joining Nancy Pelosi in this fight to get the president out of office, instead of working for the second congressional district. That’s ultimately what this is about,” said Preya Samsundar, Republican National Committee communications director for Minnesota. The RNC’s ads are not only targeted at Craig, but in other districts they think are winnable around the country, swapping out the name and district of the congressmember, but keeping the same messaging.
When asked if the ads are meant to help any particular Republican challenger, Samsundar said that it’s not about helping a particular candidate, it’s about pushing Craig to conform to what the RNC believes her district wants. Republicans are airing or plan to air similar ads in other districts with Democratic incumbents, swapping out names and photos but keeping the same messaging.
“We’re still very early on. This is more about the fact this is a district that went for the president. This is a district that supports the president,” she said. “And we want to make sure that Angie Craig is abiding by that.”
The only challenger
So far, Craig only has one Republican challenger: Rick Olson, a former state legislator from Michigan. When he announced, Olson said his reason was twofold: “Issues are not being solved in Washington, D.C., they won’t be solved by partisan screaming, and they certainly won’t be solved with socialism.”
Asked about the outside money being spent on the district, Olson said he had “mixed feelings” about the ads. On one hand, he’s happy that Republicans are paying attention to the race, a sign to him that they think it’s winnable. But he said he doesn’t like that they’re going negative.
“Outside money tends to be more negative than I like. I like running positive campaigns, issue-based campaigns, and then outside money comes in and attacks and attacks, and then the candidate gets blamed, even though you’re trying to run a positive campaign.”
Olson said that his experience as a legislator in Michigan framed his understanding of outside money, and that Democrats spent heavily there to defeat him. So whenever he sees outside money, in general, he has a viscerally negative reaction.
“I think every candidate likes to control their own message and outside, outside money can kind of muddy things up.”
In the district
When Craig hosted a town hall in Eagan on Monday, with around 200 people, there was little to no criticism of Craig’s position on impeachment or the advertisements. Constituents asked questions about medical devices, health care and unions.
In an interview with the Pioneer Press after the town hall, Craig said the conversations she’s having in the district have nothing to do with investigations. “I’ve been here (in the 2nd Congressional District) for 14 days, and I’ve only had two people mention impeachment,” she said.
“People here want to talk about health care and the cost of prescription drugs. They want to talk about infrastructure funding and special education funding and how we support our family farmers.”
While the RNC ad charges Craig with only focusing on investigations of Donald Trump, in her time in office, Craig’s campaign noted that she has authored 13 of her own bills and co-sponsored more than 261 bills, including the Lower Drug Costs Now Act and the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act.
No matter how the district perceives the ads, Terry, the U of M professor, said that the overall conversation from national groups is likely far from over. “If you figure we’re 14 months out, imagine what that’s going to be like in September of next year,” he said.
“I know they’re stacked with cash coming into this next year, but $300,000 is a lot of money for the Twin Cities market. That is a lot of money and they both went that way,” Terry said. “So you know, you gotta be looking at that and realizing that’s more than an indicator. That’s a dead canary in the coal mine.”