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Frustrated congressional challengers acknowledge uphill battle in flushing incumbents out of ‘hiding’

Minnesota’s congressional challengers share a bipartisan problem: Democrats Shelley Madore and Jim Meffert and Republican Teresa Collett all challenged their opponents to debate. They all found their challenges ignored.

Teresa Collett

They admit now they might have been a bit naïve.

Several challengers for congressional seats believed that there would be opportunities for Lincoln-Douglas type of debates, where throngs of interested observers would hear the candidates thrash out the great issues of the day.

“I might be a little guilty of having been naïve,” said Republican Teresa Collett, the University of St. Thomas law professor who is running against entrenched Democrat Betty McCollum in the 4th District. “I had hoped there would be chances to debate. I’d hoped there would be chances for conversations about ideas. But after I was endorsed, it became pretty clear it was not going to happen.”

Collett says that other than one forum in White Bear Lake, the McCollum campaign has turned down requests for more debates, with the exception of a Minnesota Public Radio debate that will take place just before the election.

A bipartisan problem
This seems to be a bipartisan problem.

Democrat Jim Meffert, who is challenging incumbent Erik Paulsen in the 3rd District, and Democrat Shelley Madore, who is challenging incumbent John Kline in the 2nd District, sound very much like Collett when the subject of debates comes up.

Jim Meffert
Jim Meffert

They all challenged their opponents to debate. They all found their challenges ignored.

Kline is especially good at debate avoidance, and Madore, a former state legislator, is especially frustrated.

She said she’s tried to get the League of Women Voters, Chambers of Commerce and newspapers in the district to arrange debates. But always, she said, Kline has said, “No.” It appears the only time the two will meet face to face is for 25 minutes on a MPR debate late next month.

So frustrated is Madore that she tried to personally grab the incumbent to encourage debate.

“I saw that he was going to attend the Randolph chicken barbecue,” Madore said. “So I said, ‘I’m going to find him.’ I grabbed my cameraman and caught up with him.”

The two had a conversation that she said went something like this:

Madore: “Hello.”

Kline: “Hello. Happy you won your primary.”

Madore: “I’m looking forward to lively debates.”

Kline: “Well, we’ll have to see how that goes.”

From a debate standpoint, it hasn’t gone well for Madore, Collett or Meffert, who has had only a couple of short forums with Paulsen.

Few debates mean few chances to reach voters
Few debates mean not only few opportunities to stand before people and talk about issues — and attempt to sell your own point of view — but also little media coverage.

In this day of smaller newsrooms, debates are an easy way for journalists to cover a race. A debate brings candidates together in one neat setting. Differences can be spelled out quickly. A reporter fills a notebook, writes a story and there’s a headline in the paper, maybe even quick sound bites on the evening news.

Shelley Madore
Shelley Madore

No debates, though, mean a lot less coverage, especially in a year with a much-covered gubernatorial race.

Madore says she’s even called local newspapers in the district, encouraging editors to interview her on subjects that she thinks should be compelling in this race — among them Kline’s refusal to use earmarks to bring home projects to the district. She specifically points to the shabby conditions of the Hastings bridge.

“These projects need federal funding,” she said. “I call the newspaper in Hastings and I say, ‘This is an important issue.’ I’m told, ‘We’re not going to get involved in the congressional races.’ … They told me people can get the information they need on the Internet.”

Making the problem worse for congressional candidates is the race between Republican incumbent Michele Bachmann and Democratic challenger Tarryl Clark in the 6th District.

Bachmann-Clark showdown overshadows other races
That high-profile race, which is drawing national attention, is taking money out of all congressional districts in the state. Republicans and Democrats alike who are fundraising in Minnesota are familiar with this line: “My contribution this year is going to the Bachmann/Clark race.”

“It’s a surreal situation,” said Meffert. “Everybody in the country has an opinion about Bachmann so that race draws money from everywhere. That race draws all of the attention. That’s the only race you hear about.”

Collett shares Meffert’s frustration.

“Because of all the attention on that [the 6th District race] and because she [McCollum] won’t debate, you’ve got to have paid media [advertising],” Collett said. “But that race is taking up so much of that. You know, you always hear that money is the lifeblood of politics. That’s so true. I figure I need about 183,000 votes, but there’s no way I can talk to that many people face to face. I need money. As a free-market gal, that doesn’t trouble me.”

But, as a challenger with low name recognition, she admits that it makes her job difficult. These laments are as old as politics. Races are different from high-school civics classes. Races are about winning, not talking about the issues of the day.

Long-established incumbents such as Kline, McCollum and 8th District Congressman Jim Oberstar, who is taking some heat for ducking debates with Republican challenger Chip Cravaack, have little to gain by debating their relatively unknown foes. By merely appearing on the same stage as Madore or Collett or Cravaack, the incumbents would be raising the profiles of their opponents.

It’s easy to duck.

The Kline campaign, for example, has a stock answer for dealing with the “why won’t you debate?” question.

The Kline campaign sends out an e-mail response to the question that reads, in part: “Congressman Kline is continuing to address the wide variety of issues important to the men and women in the 2nd Congressional district. He looks forward to continuing his ongoing dialogue with his constituents in the coming weeks and engaging in an open exchange of ideas with his opponent at the Minnesota Public Radio debate set for next month.”

Notice, the stock answer doesn’t even mention Madore’s name.

Except for monster races — such as Bachmann versus Clark and, to a lesser extent, Republican Randy Demmer versus Democratic incumbent Tim Walz in the 1st District — running for Congress is a lonely business. The candidates will be noted on sample ballots sent out by the respective parties, and they will receive nods in party phone bank calls.

Limited outside help
But, unlike Senate races, there’s likely to be little help from the national parties, again with the exception of those relatively few races that have been targeted, and state parties have little cash to be tossing into the mix. (State party money tends to be directed at legislative races.)

Despite the steepness of the hills they’re attempting to climb, Collett, Madore and Meffert are far from tossing in the towel.

Collett is attempting to raise her profile and bring down McCollum by campaigning against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“Our polling shows there’s a 36 percent approval rating for Pelosi in this district,” said Collett, “and she [McCollum] voted with Pelosi 100 percent of the time. … I’ve said this before. She’s done a better job representing the people in the San Francisco Bay area than she’s done representing the people in White Bear.”

Meffert is blasting away at Paulsen’s “attack ads” that have been showing up on metro television stations as well as his conservative voting record.

“The people in this district should have the chance to look their candidates in the eye, ask questions, kick the tires a little and get a sense of who we are,” said Meffert. “Instead, he [Paulsen] is hiding behind his bank account and 30-second TV messages. He doesn’t do well in front of people; it gets him off message. So he relies on the TV messages. But all that does is make everybody cynical.”

Madore, who may have the highest hill of all to climb, is trying to point out to voters that they don’t really know Kline.

“I don’t think people even know he’s on the education committee,” Madore said. “If the Republicans should win control [of the House], he could end up in charge of that committee. That’s a scary thing to imagine, but nobody’s talking about it.”

 She’s talking about it. The question is can anybody hear her, or the other challengers.

“This [lack of debates and coverage] leaves the voters uninformed about real differences and there are very real differences,” said Collett. “And what else I think is unfortunate is that the lack of debates leaves both sides mischaracterizing the other. You have a situation where GOP folks in this district hearing what I say McCollum thinks and you have the DFLers hearing McCollum say what I think. It’s a disappointment because it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.