Surprising election outlook: Competitive House races

This looks to be an extraordinary election year in Minnesota for the simple reason that half of the state’s eight U.S. House races – not to mention its U.S. Senate contest – are actually competitive. 

This would distress the Framers, who intended for direct elections to keep House members responsive to their constituents and assumed that competitive elections would lead to high turnover. But in modern times most House races have turned into predictable exercises in which incumbents are reelected at staggering rates by large margins.

Despite record low congressional approval ratings, more than three-quarters of House members have a free ride in the 2008 elections.  Congressional Quarterly has ranked 339 of the 435 House races as safe.  Among the competitive seats, 36 favor one party; 46 lean toward one party; and only 14 have no clear favorite.

This year, Minnesota is an exception to the norm of uncompetitive House elections; only New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida have more competitive House races than Minnesota.

District by district

The Third District contest to replace retiring Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad is as competitive as it gets. The race in the First District is also competitive, but it leans in first-term Democratic incumbent Tim Walz’s favor. The races in the Second and Sixth districts fall into Congressional Quarterly’s third tier of competitive races: they favor incumbent Republican incumbents John Kline and Michele Bachmann, respectively.

As usual, long-serving Democratic incumbents Betty McCollum (Fourth), Collin Peterson (Seventh) and James Oberstar (Eighth) have no reason to worry. And first term Democrat Keith Ellison (Fifth) is heading into his first of what will likely be a series of uncompetitive reelection races. 

In general, House elections generate the most competition when no incumbent is running and neither party has a strong advantage among the electorate.  This explains the tight competition in the Third District, which is not only the most competitive in Minnesota but among 10 most competitive in the country.  With his moderate voting record, membership on the Ways and Means Committee and outstanding constituent service, Ramstad was reelected by large margins in a district that has narrowly divided between the parties in the past eight election cycles. 

Republican state Rep. Erik Paulsen is running to fill his former’s boss seat with Ramstad’s support, but not with Ramstad’s advantages of incumbency. Paulsen is helped by his experience in the Legislature representing some of the district’s voters, but he is running on a record that is more conservative than Ramstad’s – and more conservative than the district’s median voter is.

His Democratic opponent, political newcomer Ashwin Madia, is not as well-known to voters, but expensive TV ad buys will make both candidates regular features in living rooms across the metro. Madia is an attorney and Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq. His upset victory at the district party convention revealed impressive organizing and speaking skills, and recent FEC reports suggest his fundraising skills are also strong.

Politics is local, except…

Former House Speaker Tip O’Neil’s famous adage that “all politics is local” characterizes most House races. But when a national tide gives one party an advantage, challengers can capitalize on that momentum, as Walz did in 2006.

Unlike most successful challengers, Walz did not have previous electoral experience, but he appealed to voters with his message of change and his service in the Army National Guard. Although the district inherently favors Republican candidates – President Bush won it by 4 points in 2004 – incumbent Republican Gil Gutknecht was vulnerable in a Democratic year, and he was at odds with district voters on some key local issues. Amazingly, Walz – then a high school teacher – took out a personal debt of more than $125,000 to campaign, and he won by six points. 

The GOP tilt of the First District, combined with the fact that incumbents are typically at their most vulnerable in their first reelection bids, mean that Walz is a target in this year. In fact, this race could have easily been a toss up, but Walz has used his membership on the Agriculture, Transportation and Veterans Affairs Committees to secure local federal funding and raise attention to issues voters in his district care about.  He has also been helped by a competitive GOP primary in September between a party-endorsed newcomer, physician Brian Davis, and long-serving state Sen. Dick Day. If Walz shows signs of significant danger, the national party campaign committees will jump in, but for now, they are focusing on races like the Third.

First-term incumbent Bachmann has also attracted a credible challenger, Elwyn Tinklenberg, who highlights his previous government service as state commissioner of Transportation and mayor of Blaine. Although the district has the strongest Republican voter base in the state – Bush won it by 15 points in 2004 – and Bachmann has had two years in office to promote herself to voters, her staunch conservatism and outspoken policy positions may put her at odds with moderates in the district. Tinklenberg stresses transportation and economic issues where he may find common ground with voters, and he is ideologically more moderate than Bachmann’s first opponent, Patty Wetterling. 

Incumbent Kline is surprisingly vulnerable, despite his 2006 margin of 16 points. Kline toes the Republican Party line in the House, focusing mainly on legislative issues within the jurisdiction of his two committees, Education and Labor and Armed Services.

Kline’s vulnerable not because of missteps on his part, but he isn’t in a position to tout major legislative accomplishments. His race was originally considered “safe,” but Congressional Quarterly determined it was competitive with the emergence of Democratic challenger Steve Sarvi, an Iraq War veteran and former mayor of Watertown. In a presidential year, Kline, like other Republicans, needs to worry about increased Democratic turnout and enthusiasm in Minnesota.   

Noncompetitive races
The incumbents in the remaining districts can look forward to victories by big margins, as usual. All incumbents claim they earn such margins, but their House service facilitates their reelection at every turn and scares off quality challengers.  

Peterson’s moderate policy positions, combined with his powerful position as chairman of the Agriculture Committee, help him win by large margins in a district that could be competitive. (Seventh District voters gave Bush a 12-point margin over John Kerry in 2004.)

McCollum and Ellison are in sync with their politically liberal Twin Cities districts, allowing them to actively pursue their legislative agendas and provide constituent service without real fear (or the distraction) of competitive elections.

Oberstar, the longest-serving member of Congress from Minnesota ever, wins reelection by large margins, even when challenged by well-known Republicans. No member of the House has more influence over transportation policy than Oberstar, who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and he ensures that his district disproportionately benefits.  

Any potential challenger with enough qualifications to have a chance of defeating an incumbent knows better than to challenge an entrenched incumbent unless the conditions are right. Three credible challengers determined that the political conditions – a strong Democratic tide, an incumbent at his or her most vulnerable, or both – may be enough to overcome the odds.

As a result, three competitive challengers and the candidates in an open seat contest are giving voters in half of Minnesota’s congressional districts real choices in the 2008 House elections.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 08/08/2008 - 02:37 pm.

    John Kline’s decision not to attend FarmFest may be a misstep that harms his standing with rural voters. Kline (MN2) and Michele Bachmann (MN6) both failed to attend FarmFest, citing ‘scheduling conflicts’ (AP story). Participants in the FarmFest Congressional forum (which received less media coverage than the Senate forum) included Congressman Collin Peterson (MN7), chair of House Agriculture Committee, Congressman Tim Walz (MN1), member of House Agriculture Committee, and DFL challengers Steve Sarvi, (MN2) and El Tinklenberg (MN6).

    According to WCCO coverage: “FarmFest draws thousands of farmers and rural residents from around the region, and has become an expected stop for statewide political candidates every two years.”


    Failure of incumbents to attend FarmFest, planned months in advance, is puzzling, given constituents expect to see elected officials back in the district during August Congressional recess.

    It appears Bachmann and Kline are giving higher priority to working on energy policy issue now. Kline participated in the GOP ‘protest’ in the darkened and silent House chamber on Monday, blogging about his experience on ‘The Hill,’ calling it “historic, . . exciting.”

    While petroleum may be in Kline’s blood from his Texas roots, perhaps he should remember that Agriculture, not energy, is Minnesota’s Number One industry, and Minnesota’s Second Congressional District includes many family farms.

    Kline’s legislative record gives him little to run on, further shaming his failure to appear publicly. The ‘Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Program’ he sponsored (perhaps his best piece of legislation in the 110th Congress) was, ironically, pioneered in Minnesota with an earmark (which Kline shuns) secured by former Senator Mark Dayton several years ago.

    Kline has a flimsy voting record when it comes to many issues that people care about like health care for children. Kline and Bachmann both voted against the S-CHIP and the new GI Bill.

    Bachmann also voted against the Farm Bill, so I suppose she really could not attend FarmFest if she didn’t want to get booed.

    John Kline’s Op-ed in the Pioneer Press “A Partnership in Caring for Vets and Their Families” (May 26, 2008), while appropriate for Memorial Day, rang hollow to we that read the weekly ‘How they Voted’ report and remember just 10 days before Memorial Day, Kline voted ‘Nay’ on providing 21st Century veterans with GI Bill education benefits equivalent to what WWII vets received.

    Kline could improve his tribute to today’s military people not by quoting Patrick Henry or Abraham Lincoln, but by saying ‘Yea’ instead of ‘Nay’ when voting on legislation to benefit military veterans.

    Kline voted ‘Nay’ on funding the Department of Veterans Affairs on January 31, 2007, when the new Congressional leadership was working to end the continuing resolution that all but two of the departments of the federal government operated under since October 1, 2006. Two days after voting ‘Nay,’ Kline told the media he was ‘outraged’ that one of his constituents was unable to get healthcare at Minnesota’s two VA Medical Centers. The young Marine, a veteran of combat in Iraq, left behind a young child and a pregnant girlfriend with his death, reported by the media as suicide.

    Kline is the least effective member of the Minnesota Congressional delegation, as ranked by, partly for his refusal to obtain ‘earmarks’ for his district. This makes him sort of a Congressional Robin Hood, as MN2 sends much more tax revenue to DC than comes back to the district. While Kline can claim he’s ‘taking the high road’ on this issue, his ability to obtain earmarks is probably handicapped by his failure to work well with legislators ‘across the aisle.’ Kline rarely signed on to a bill authored by a Democratic House member when he was a member of the majority party, and the fall of his party to the Minority status has had little impact on his discriminate practice of not co-sponsoring a bill authored by a member of the other party.

    Does anyone care if Kline rarely votes the way most people would want him to? While his failure to secure earmarks seems to correspond to declining contributions from PACs, Kline still has plenty in his campaign coffer to print those glossy ads that his creative marketing company fabricates to show he’s a bigger ‘patriot’ than anyone that dares to run against him. In less than 100 days we’ll know if the voters of MN2 can be hoodwinked again by the charming white-haired man in the Navy blazer.

  2. Submitted by Gary Gross on 08/09/2008 - 04:47 pm.

    Calling the 2nd District race competitive is laughable. At a recent parade in Steve Sarvi’s hometown, the Kline campaign had over a 2:1 advantage in volunteers. I’d be surprised if Kline doesn’t win with 65+ percent of the vote.

    I live in the 6th District. El Tinklenberg has run before but he’s had zero impact this year. He’s got 5 billboards in the Greater St. Cloud area but that’s it. Rep. Bachmann won’t win with a Kline-like margin but win decisively she will.

  3. Submitted by Eva Young on 08/12/2008 - 09:19 pm.

    For the real scoop on Michele Bachmann, check out: – we’ve chronicled Michele Bachmann’s antics – and the 6th District race for years.

    It speaks volumes that Michele Bachmann was too chicken to show up at Farmfest to explain her vote. Will she be at the State Fair? So far she has yet to have an open in person town hall meeting with her constituents.

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