Given John Kline’s comfortable margins in campaign funds and past vote tallies you might think the U.S. House race in Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District would be as quiet as a corn field after harvest.
Democrat Steve Sarvi has waged a feisty challenge, though, to Kline, the Republican who is seeking his fourth term in office.
Now, Sarvi is positioned to define the outer limits of anti-incumbent anger as voters inflict punishment for the Wall Street meltdown which has drained retirement accounts, frozen credit and tapped taxpayers for massive bailouts.
A Sarvi victory would be an “incredible upset,” said Dan Hofrenning, a political science professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, which is in the 2nd District.
“But if there ever was a year to upset a Republican incumbent, this is the year,” he said. “It would have to be a year like 1994 was for the Republicans when a huge tide swept Democrats out of office. . . . For Sarvi to win in this district there would have to be a huge wave for the Democrats this time.”
By conventional reckoning, there is little chance of that happening. After wresting the seat from Democrat Bill Luther in 2002, Kline won re-election by more than 16-point margins in 2004 and 2006.
As of Sept. 30, Kline had raised $1,346,184 compared to Sarvi’s $442,484. More important, Kline had $675,599 on hand while Sarvi had just $136,410.
Still, the district’s Republicans express caution in the face of this year’s economic crisis.
“This is a tough year for Republicans,” said Denny McNamara, who represents a Hastings-based district in the Minnesota Legislature. “You can’t believe how many people I door knock now who say they still don’t know what they are going to do at the presidential level.”
Indeed, Kline said he is taking nothing for granted: “We are going to keep campaigning full strength through Tuesday night, November 4th,” he said.
The Obama factor
One hope for Sarvi’s supporters is that Sen. Barack Obama’s popularity in the presidential race will help other Democrats.
“We are going to see a lot of people riding Obama’s coat tails, and all of the polls show he is very popular,” said Rodney Van Vleet, a former Hastings High School principal who is running for the Minnesota House.
A wild card in the Kline-Sarvi race will be the district itself. Minnesota’s 2nd takes in the southern Twin Cities suburbs and reaches into farmland further south. It includes some of Minnesota’s oldest and newest cities. It is both urban and rural.
By several measures, it is the state’s Republican stronghold. But it has sent at least 15 DFLers to the state Legislature in recent years. And it favored Democrat Amy Klobuchar in the 2006 race to represent Minnesota in the U.S. Senate (albeit, by a narrower margin than the rest of the state).
National political observers rate Kline’s hold on the district as firm but not rock-solid. Cook Political Report calls the race “likely Republican” rather than “solid Republican.” And Congressional Quarterly lists it as “Republican favored” rather than “safe Republican.”
The race pits two military men against each other. Sarvi has served with his National Guard unit in Kosovo and Iraq. Kline is a decorated Marine Corps officer who served in the Vietnam War and other conflicts.
That is not to say they agree on the war in Iraq.
Kline has supported the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war. He rejects calls for setting a withdrawal date: “We ought to let conditions in Iraq dictate how and when we come home.”
Sarvi advocates starting a process immediately to “responsibly withdraw.” Iraq’s excess oil revenues — not the U.S. taxpayers — should finance the country’s reconstruction, he said.
On taxes, Sarvi would repeal President Bush’s tax cuts for Americans earning more than $250,000 a year but shield small businesses from any tax increase.
Kline would make the Bush tax cuts permanent, and look hard at suspending the capital gains tax in order to stimulate the economy.
A dilapidated bridge in Hastings has become an emblem for their disagreement over the congressional practice of earmarking funds for projects in members’ districts. Calling earmarks “a massive abuse of taxpayers’ dollars,” Kline is boycotting the system.
Thus, when local officials sought money to replace the bridge, Kline refused to put in an earmark. Eventually, the federal funding was secured through state channels.
Kline says the outcome proves his point: “A project can compete on its merits.”
But Sarvi says Kline has “unilaterally disarmed” his district, leaving federal money to flow elsewhere.
Veterans’ programs are one of the most contentious issues in the race. Kline says that taking care of troops and veterans is one of his highest priorities. But Sarvi says Kline should have been a stronger advocate for veterans. Among other charges, Sarvi’s only TV ad claims that Kline called for diverting resources from treatment of post traumatic stress disorder in returning vets. Kline denies the accusation.
Kline, 61, was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, and he commanded Marine aviation forces during the U.S.-led effort to secure humanitarian relief operations in Somalia in the early 1990s.
He also served as a military aide to presidents Carter and Reagan, with responsibility for carrying the “nuclear football,” the package containing launch codes and other emergency security information.
In the House, Kline serves on the Armed Services and the Education and Labor committees. His voting record was rated as the most conservative in the Minnesota delegation by the National Journal’s Composite Conservative Score for votes cast in 2007. By other measures, his votes have been consistent with the interests of the National Right to Life Committee, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business-Industry Political Action Committee and the National Association of Manufacturers.
Sarvi, 43, was an active-duty Army captain before he served with the Minnesota Army National Guard in Kosovo in 2004. Meanwhile, in civilian life, he worked as city administrator for Lanesboro, Watertown and Victoria. He was elected mayor of Watertown in 2000 and re-elected in 2002 and 2004.
He stepped down from the mayor’s post in 2005 when he volunteered to serve in Iraq. His duties there included supervising the building of new schools, upgrading of roads and distribution of water storage and pumping equipment.
Sarvi is endorsed by the Independence Party of Minnesota as well as the DFL.
Sarvi’s campaign has built on simmering resentment in the district where Democrats have long complained that Kline is not available to the public.
“Kline pretty much hides out in Washington, and when he comes back he mostly appears at private functions,” said Charles Smith-Dewey, a graphics artist who lives in Lakeville. “He rarely holds town hall meetings.”
Kline called that claim “outrageous.” He said he routinely circulates through public gatherings from county fairs to local city council meetings. He also contacts hundreds of constituents at a time via “tele-town hall meetings,” by which an automated system dials households randomly and invites people who pick up the phone to stay on the line if they want to talk with their representative.
Kline lauded the technique, saying it allows thousands of his constituents to air concerns and questions “from the comfort of their own homes.”
But it only exacerbates Smith-Dewey’s frustration. He could walk into a traditional town meeting and bring up a burning issue. That is not possible with tele-town halls where participants have no control over their selection. And reporters can’t cover the tele-town halls to fact check and analyze what’s said, he complained.
Kline dismissed the criticism, saying it comes from “20 people” in the district who “have this notion that it is my job to provide them with a venue just to protest.”
Such rancor was left at the door, though, when candidates for several offices attended a bipartisan “meet and greet” sponsored by the Hastings Chamber of Commerce last week.
Kline strode up to Sarvi, extended a hand and said, “Hi Steve, How you doing? Holding up for another 12 days?”
Without hesitation, Sarvi returned the cordiality and introduced Kline to his mother, Joyce Simard, who wore a black t-shirt declaring she was “Steve Sarvi’s Mom.”
They laughed together when VanVleet, the legislative candidate, quipped that elections are held in November because “it’s a good time to get a turkey.”
Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.