In the 2014 election cycle, the Republican Party worked hard to flip the partisan balance of the Minnesota congressional delegation from five Democrats and three Republicans to the other way around.
To do it, they targeted the two most vulnerable Democratic incumbents — Reps. Rick Nolan and Collin Peterson — and launched expensive assaults against them.
But it didn’t work: as Republicans elsewhere in the country swept into office on a wave of anti-Democrat sentiment, Nolan narrowly edged out challenger Stewart Mills, and Peterson easily beat state Sen. Torrey Westrom.
Two years later, the GOP finds itself in a very different position: instead of gunning to claim a majority of Minnesota congressional seats, it will have to fight hard simply to hold on to more than one seat.
How did the tables turn? District-by-district, here’s a look at a cycle where the GOP finds itself on the defensive in Minnesota.
District 2: Last year, Rep. John Kline was poised to face his toughest re-election bid ever. Then, he suddenly announced his retirement, immediately turning CD2 from a (probably) safe bet for the GOP to a toss-up — or even a place where Democrats hold an advantage.
Though a Democratic House candidate hasn’t won here since 1998, CD2 has grown less conservative since then, and it now qualifies as a true swing district. It voted for Barack Obama and Amy Klobuchar in 2012 and Al Franken in 2014.
One political prediction outlet, Rothenberg and Gonzalez, moved CD2 from the toss-up category to the “tilt Democratic” category, giving DFL nominee Angie Craig the slight edge over any Republican candidate. (The endorsed candidate, Jason Lewis, faces a primary challenge from businesswoman Darlene Miller and former state Sen. John Howe.)
State Sen. Dave Thompson, who represents Lakeville in CD2, told MinnPost at the Minnesota GOP convention last weekend that “the reason it feels, quote-unquote, that we’re on the defensive, is that now CD2 is an open seat, so what has been locked down for a few cycles is not locked down.”
District 3: A Democrat hasn’t held this seat since 1961 — but thanks to Donald Trump’s likely place at the top of the Republican ticket, Democrats are seeing a rare opening.
In April, Democrats successfully got state sen. Terri Bonoff to enter the race to unseat Rep. Erik Paulsen. The Eden Prairie Republican has never faced a more credible challenger, and Democrats will spend heavily on ads connecting him with Trump.
The conventional wisdom is that Trump’s candidacy will be a burden for down-ballot Republicans in the affluent, moderate suburbs of the Twin Cities, where he performed poorly on caucus night in March. Still, Paulsen has the advantage — and a whole lot of cash to spend on defense. But Republicans aren’t taking the challenge lightly.
Sixth District GOP activist Walter Hudson — who has been a leading Republican voice opposing Trump, even after Trump’s nomination became all but certain — told MinnPost that Bonoff is a “credible candidate… That’s indicative of the opportunities that Democrats sense in the wake of Donald Trump becoming the presumptive nominee.”
District 8: Stewart Mills’ rematch with Nolan feels like the only race where the GOP is legitimately on offense, and it is their best shot to pick up a new seat.
Like he was in 2014, Mills was named to the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Young Guns” program, which identifies the strongest GOP challengers for special support. (He was the only Minnesota candidate selected.)
Just as Trump could be a major liability for the GOP in CD2 and CD3, he could be an asset for Mills. The billionaire’s populism — and his relentless criticism of trade deals that have become deeply unpopular on the Iron Range — should resonate in CD8. Mills has embraced elements of the Trump platform as it’s become clearer he will be the nominee.
Republicans have also argued that the lack of a statewide race to drive Democratic turnout, combined with Clinton’s unpopularity in the 8th, will help defeat Nolan in November.
Both sides will spend heavily here, as they did in 2014, when Mills-Nolan Round 1 was a top-ten most expensive U.S. House contest.
District 7: If they couldn’t knock him off in 2014, Republicans may be accepting that the 7th District will turn red only when Collin Peterson retires.
After getting Westrom, a well-regarded state senator, to challenge Peterson in 2014, the GOP failed to produce a candidate for 2016 of the same profile: the endorsed candidate this year, David Hughes, is an Air Force veteran, but a true political novice.
Like they have before, the GOP will try hard to connect Peterson with national Democrats like Clinton and Rep. Nancy Pelosi who are unpopular in this Republican district — the reddest district in the nation to be represented by a Democrat. (The Cook Report, which rates the partisanship of districts, gives Republicans a six-point advantage here.)
In this cycle, though, it’s unlikely the Republicans will spend much — given the tough races elsewhere in Minnesota — to defeat Peterson.
“The national Republicans wouldn’t appreciate me saying this,” Thompson said, “but there’s a certain amount of being resigned to the fact that there are finite resources.”
District 1: In Southern Minnesota, voters will be treated to another rematch: Republican Jim Hagedorn takes on Rep. Tim Walz after losing to him by nine points in 2014. Like the 7th, the 1st District has been a longtime goal for Minnesota Republicans: despite leaning Republican, per the Cook Report’s calculation of district partisanship, Walz has represented the area since 2006.
However, this rematch doesn’t appear to be as high on national Republicans’ radar as the one in CD8. Though he announced over a year ago, Hagedorn has only raised $126,500 — about a quarter of what Mills has raised.
Districts 4, 5, and 6: The GOP needn’t worry about incumbent Rep. Tom Emmer losing his seat in deep-red CD6, and Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum should hold onto their safely blue districts as usual.
The mood at the convention
The tough road map facing Minnesota Republicans appeared to put a damper on the festivities at the state GOP convention this past weekend in Duluth.
Typically, the gathering is an opportunity to spotlight endorsed congressional candidates, and with no gubernatorial or senate candidate to hog the spotlight this year, U.S. House candidate appearances should have been a top item.
Instead, most were an afterthought, speaking to the crowd as attendees selected delegates for the national convention in Cleveland.
Only one candidate, Lewis, commanded the crowd’s full attention, and he got a warm reception. (Mills had public appearances at the convention, but no address.)
Party brass, including Chair Keith Downey, cautioned that it’s early to tell exactly how many of these races will shake out. If officials praised a specific candidate, it tended to be Mills, who was lauded as having improved as a candidate since the last time he ran.
That attitude rubbed some the wrong way. “If they don’t believe they ought to be on the defensive,” Hudson said, “then they’re being irresponsible.”
In a speech, the newly-elected Minnesota delegate to the Republican National Committee, Rick Rice, asked attendees to imagine a far different future on November 9, 2016, the day after election day.
“We’ve elected a Republican president, we’ve won five of eight congressional districts,” he told the cheering crowd.
Rice flubbed his next line, though. “We’ve gotta get Tim Walz elected!” The crowd laughed, and he quickly realized his mistake.