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Can Paul Ryan save Erik Paulsen from Donald Trump?

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
House Speaker Paul Ryan introduced the anti-poverty planks of his new GOP platform at a news conference last week.

Does Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen have a Trump problem?

Democrats seem to think so. That’s why they were able to recruit a challenger as prominent as state Sen. Terri Bonoff to take on the usually safe Paulsen. Democrats figure having the Obama-hating, rabble-rousing, conspiracy-pushing Donald Trump at the top of the GOP ticket might be enough to get the country club Republicans of the Third Congressional District to either stay home — or even vote blue — giving them a good chance of unseating the district’s four-term incumbent.

But leave it to a Wisconsinite to disrupt the Minnesota Democrats’ grand plans. This summer, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is rolling out a GOP agenda for the country: called “A Better Way,” it’s an articulation of the conservative principles and policy points that Ryan and his allies plan to advance in Congress. You won’t find any references to building the wall or banning Muslim immigration in its pages, but you will find talk of the earned income tax credit.

With few legislative days left on Congress’ calendar, many are speculating that Ryan’s agenda isn’t intended so much as a roadmap for lawmaking as it is an alternative vision to the not-so-conservative candidacy of Trump.

Offering up a major policy package now, the thinking goes, helps protect Ryan and his majority by giving candidates something concrete — and distinct from whatever policy Trump espouses — to run on.

It’s a plan that seems tailor-made to protect incumbents like Paulsen, who has emulated Ryan’s fiscal hawkishness and tax policy wonkery to generate his own political success. Running as a Ryan Republican, either explicitly or implicitly, could give Paulsen more credibility in advancing a more positive vision — and in distancing himself from Trump as much as possible.

A ‘confident America’

There’s nothing particularly new about the platform Ryan has put forth. It’s a distillation of ideas that the Speaker has advanced since being elected to represent Wisconsin’s 1st District in 1998 — a reformist viewpoint that emphasizes how conservatism might make government function more efficiently and effectively. The theme: a “confident America.”

So far, Ryan has introduced three planks — poverty, national security, and the economy — out of the six-part agenda. The other three areas are health care, tax reform, and the Constitution.

Ryan’s proposals on poverty — a signature issue for him — center around reforming welfare and benefit programs. His plan suggests expanding work requirements for people receiving welfare, food stamps, or housing assistance; it also proposes expanding the earned income tax credit, a federal tax break for poor and working households that is popular with Democrats as well.

His national security outlook — “defeat the terrorists, protect the homeland” is a tagline — is essentially what Americans have been hearing from Republicans for years. It advocates for better border security (no mention of wall, or who may pay for wall), bolstering cybersecurity, countering Russian influence and supporting NATO, as well as promoting free trade agreements.

The economic plank of the agenda primarily takes aim at government regulations, which Ryan argues have cost trillions in economic productivity. It also calls for an end to Wall Street bailouts, continued domestic production of energy, and rolling back the power of labor unions.

Comfortable territory for Paulsen

The issue areas line up very well with Paulsen’s profile as a legislator. As a member of the Ways and Means Committee — which Ryan chaired before being elected Speaker — Paulsen is actively involved in tax, trade, and healthcare policy. He’s most comfortable when he’s talking about tax reform and GDP growth rates.

In an interview with MinnPost, Paulsen expressed enthusiasm for Ryan’s agenda, saying the Speaker knows how to set a vision and communicate it to people. “That’s why I’m excited about these five, six, initiatives he’s doing,” Paulsen said.

Paulsen said he has been involved in crafting some elements of the agenda in which he has expertise, and has attended meetings and offered feedback. He said that a few of his own projects, like his bill regarding health savings accounts, may make it into the platform.

Paulsen did not say that he found Ryan’s agenda — which has been in the works for some time — to be an explicit counter to Trump’s, but he did say, given its timing with Trump’s ascendancy, that it could become a viable alternative message for down-ballot GOP candidates.

“If the nominee situation is getting settled… I think Ryan says, I’m glad we’re putting together this agenda for our members to run on and be ready to go on given the circumstances,” Paulsen said. “It’s important for the House to be out front leading.”

‘Paulsen is going to give a monster hug to Paul Ryan’

For some politics-watchers, Ryan’s agenda presents a clear-cut opportunity for Paulsen to ignore Trump and run the kind of campaign he is most comfortable running.

According to Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College, “Erik Paulsen is going to give a monster hug to Paul Ryan until the election’s over.”

“Paulsen is exactly the sort of Republican who needs Ryan’s help,” he said, citing the swingy nature of the district — it twice went for President Obama — and the strength of his challenger, Bonoff, one of the DFL’s most moderate, business-friendly legislators. Paulsen, Schier says, “needs a more forward-looking agenda than Trump has rhetorically supplied.”

Jim Meffert knows what Paulsen is like as a competitor — he ran against him in 2010 and was defeated. He said he thinks Paulsen would be fine without any Ryan agenda as a lifeline, but added that it’s probably welcome. “I think it helps him, if it gets difficult,” he said.

“This is set up for them to run on pretty explicitly. It’s the timing and the framing of it that are the most important parts… Clearly it’s the alternate campaign, someone here has to focus on policy, someone has to have an alternative narrative for the Republicans.”

Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer disagrees, telling MinnPost he thinks the agenda is not about Trump. Still, he suggested it presents an opportunity for GOP candidates to put forth a more appealing message.

“Republicans have been very good, at least recently, of being able to tell you about why the other guy’s ideas are so bad,” he said. “But this is about telling people what we have to offer and why our ideas offer people a better opportunity for a better life.”

Will people care?

Regardless of the extent to which Paulsen embraces his friend Ryan through November, it’s still unclear how much attention a policy platform from Washington will command in this highly unusual election cycle.

How much will voters care about welfare reform when Trump is seemingly igniting a fresh firestorm every day? And how damaging will that be for Paulsen, who Democrats are already trying mightily to tie to the billionaire?

That difficulty was on display last week, when Ryan was rolling out his poverty platform at a community center in D.C. Reporters had plenty of questions for him — but only about Trump, who Ryan had reluctantly endorsed days before.

But if there’s anywhere this policy platform — and its messenger — might succeed in protecting an incumbent, it’s probably the Minnesota 3rd, says Schier. Suburban and exurban America, he says, “is the natural base for Paul Ryan,” citing his advocacy of free trade as one thing that will play well in the district.

It is also a district that has not sent a Democrat to Congress since the presidency of John F. Kennedy, and might be more primed to open their ears to the Speaker’s vision of Republican governance.

Despite the fact that Ryan endorsed Trump, Schier says that the Speaker “is the voice of Republican continuity. If you look at what Ryan said about NATO, about dealing with China and immigration, that’s continuity. Paulsen’s clearly not in favor of the deviation that Trump is rhetorically championing right now.”

It’s also unclear how much Trump will actually hurt Paulsen. Though GOP leaders have real concerns about the Trump effect in districts like this one, it’s possible that voters here will not connect their representative to the nominee and continue to ticket-split, which they have done for some time.

Paulsen, for his part, is confident his constituents will be receptive to the campaign he plans to run. “Policy matters,” he said. “Minnesotans, more than any other state, people pay attention, people want you to work across the aisle.”

“You can’t have campaigns that are driven about personality and that type of sensationalism. You’ve gotta have ideas about why you want to serve and govern.”

He’s even optimistic — if only cautiously — that Trump might borrow some of Ryan’s ideas, though the two disagree intensely on key issues like free trade, American interventionism, and entitlement reform.

“I’ve never met Donald Trump, but when leadership had that meeting, the goal was to engage him in policy and Paul Ryan took out the pie charts,” Paulsen said. “Trump and his team were pretty interested in this stuff. The fact that there’s interest bodes well.”

“Hopefully,” he let out a chuckle, “that will happen.”

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/15/2016 - 11:08 am.

    the economy

    History has pretty much shown that while Republicans are good for the rich, they are bad for the economy. There isn’t anything about Paulsen’s agenda which changes from that.

    I think the third Congressional District is a great place to live. I don’t live there, but I have campaigned there, I think the third district has a lot to offer the country in terms of leadership. It has a voice that needs to be heard. And for way too long it’s been silent. When leadership is called for, Rep. Paulsen is off in a basement somewhere silently crunching numbers which for him will never add up.

    I haven’t always agreed with Terri Bonoff on stuff. She a lifelong resident of a district where I visit but where I do not live. But agree with her or not, I know Terri as someone who listens and who hears. And whatever we choose to believe about her opponent, in times of crisis Terri Bonoff is going to speak up and she is going to speak out, and what she says she will say for the and on behalf of the people of the third Congressional District, and not the faceless financiers of the ways and means committee. And believe me, Terri will be heard.

  2. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/15/2016 - 12:10 pm.

    Just Amazing

    Erik Paulsen is planning on hitching his wagon to Speaker Ryan, a person (note I did not call him a man) who supports a presidential candidate who Ryan himself has admitted is racist. Though we keep hearing how Ryan is “in a tough spot”, we should recall the words of Dr. King:

    The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

    Ryan has chosen comfort and convenience over moral courage. And Paulsen has cast his lot with this poor excuse for a leader, and by extension refuses to call out Trump’s racism.

    A pox on all of their houses.

  3. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 06/15/2016 - 01:06 pm.

    Paulsen Can Run But He Can’t Hide

    Eric Paulsen can run as fast and far as from Donald Trump as he wants but he cannot hide from him. When the Republican Party confirms Mr. Trump as it’s nominee in July, Eric Paulsen and Donald Trump officially become two peas in the same Republican pod. What Donald Trump says or has said on any issue becomes Eric Paulsen’s de facto position whether he likes it or not.

    Eric Paulsen will need the support of Trump voters to retain his seat in the U.S. House and I am pretty certain that he knows that. He can try to nuance his way out around that but I hope Ms. Bonoff and the DFL keep reminding voters that Trump and Paulsen are running together under the same Republican banner.

  4. Submitted by JJ Cambell on 06/15/2016 - 01:09 pm.

    Paul Ryan may not be able to save himself

    Paul Ryan thinks he can unite the warring Republican factions in the House, yet he can’t even handle a few angry protesters in his hometown.Ryan was met by angry protesters and hecklers expressing rage that he was putting rich corporate interests above those of the people who elected him t
    o serve them. They were shouting corporate puppet,” and “stop the attacks on the middle class

  5. Submitted by C.S. Senne on 06/15/2016 - 02:39 pm.


    Paulsen has laced up his track shoes, hoping to avoid anything that reeks of Trump. I recently called his EP office (952-405-8510) to find out where and when Erik was going to hold any kind of public event in the District. The person who answered the phone immediately became so flustered and vague, I could picture her reaching for a brown bag to put over her head so she could complete the obfuscation. She stuttered that there weren’t any public events scheduled; in fact, she added, there was “nothing” on his calendar. I asked about the occasional Cub Foods on the Corner that I often read about in the Eden Prairie News AFTER the event; were any of those scheduled? The poor phone person again whispered that “nothing” was on the calendar–and, besides, Cub NEVER tells Paulsen too far ahead of time when he can come… I asked her where I could check, e.g. Facebook, etc. for events that Paulsen schedules. She was at a loss. I asked if she’d put me on a mailing list for Paulsen event alerts. She said she’d “try” but their office only sends these kinds of mailings out to “certain zip codes” in the District. She then hesitatingly suggested that I call his campaign office for more info. So, I did. (952-934-8999). An enthusiastic voice answered the phone, but immediately shut down when I asked about scheduled Paulsen appearances. He, too, was mystified as to when Paulsen would be in the District. This seems very strange, but, hey, when you’re running away from Trump, you can’t really give out your schedule! I also asked the phone-answerer-fellow whether Paulsen was still endorsing Trump. He quickly replied, “Ah, ah, he endorsed Marco Rubio…” OK, then. I reminded phone-answerer that Rubio was no longer in the race. “Is Paulsen voting for Trump?” I inquired. Phone-answerer quickly said, “Yeah, but Mr. Paulsen’s not going to answer any questions about Trump. We’re going to talk about our issues.” He then launched into a 2-minute diatribe about the “amazing and overwhelming negatives” of of Hillary Clinton…She’s so much ‘less popular” than Trump. I found that surprising, since it’s not true, but, hey. When that’s on the script Paulsen’s written for his campaign office phone-fellow, who am I to question it? So, that’s how our Congressperson’s handling his Trump “problem.” I’ll keep checking the aisles of Cub Foods for any sighting!

  6. Submitted by Roy Everson on 06/15/2016 - 04:06 pm.

    Not Ryan’s job, maybe?

    Take pity on members of the GOP platform committees this year — they must experience total futility when the Speaker has already slipped in his own platform.

  7. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 06/15/2016 - 04:44 pm.

    Look like Ramstad, vote like Bachmann

    And his vote to continue to allow those on the terror watch list to have no restrictions on their gun ownership rights is proof how out of step he is with the 3rd District.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/16/2016 - 06:30 am.

    Paulsen just doesn’t represent his constituents, something he has worked hard to prevent people from noticing.

  9. Submitted by Charles Flieger on 06/16/2016 - 12:42 pm.

    The DFL perennially has flopped in this district while all the while claiming they had a tight race and the “right year” to take it. I’m not convinced the Trump factor will be enough to sway this district. I voted for Madia in 2008 but subsequently have pulled the lever for Paulsen in every election. I’ve been pleased with Paulsen and have found him responsive to me as a constituent. On the few occasions where I’ve contacted his office via email I’ve received a phone call back from him. His appeal to the district is on taxes and protecting the medical device industry, and he does this well.

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/19/2016 - 06:49 am.

    The DFL perennially has flopped in this district while all the while claiming they had a tight race and the “right year” to take it.

    High talk aside, the DFL has not waged a serious race in this district since it opened up on Ramstad’s retirement. At that time, with no Republican incumbent and an electorate ever so slightly trending left, we did have a shot. But instead of choosing Terri back then, a candidate who has a pretty good sense of how to win an election, we picked Ashwin who just wasn’t up to it. Since then, we have mostly filled the ticket with under financed opponents who didn’t provide serious opposition to Paulsen.

    This time, it’s different. Terri is running, and she can be counted on to run hard and effectively. The going, if completely untested, theory is that Trump will hurt down ticket races particularly in places like the third district where people are not stupid. Paulsen at long last may be forced to doff in his invisibility cloak, which in all likelihood will reveal himself as the dullest human being imaginable.

    I don’t know how things will turn out. This will be a tough seat for the DFL to win or keep But the Third district is one of only a handful of districts in the nation with a Republican congressman that voted for Obama. I think this time we can really say with some sincerity, “Game on.”.

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