When you’re a candidate for office, constantly reminding people to vote is how you win.
Last week at a Shakopee restaurant, Darlene Miller, Republican candidate for Congress in the 2nd District, wasn’t just reminding people to vote — she was reminding them there was an election in the first place.
Such is the state of play for Tuesday’s primary elections in Minnesota, where the lack of a prominent statewide primary is prompting talk of abysmally low voter turnout.
There is a contested primary, though, in the Republican race for outgoing Rep. John Kline’s seat here in the 2nd, which covers the south metro and stretches southeast to cover Red Wing and Wabasha.
Minnesota’s Second Congressional District
The endorsed candidate, radio personality Jason Lewis, faces three challengers: Miller, a businesswoman endorsed by Kline; John Howe, a former state senator; and Matt Erickson, a Donald Trump supporter running as the explicit pro-Trump candidate.
The challengers vying for votes in this low-turnout contest like their chances at an upset. But do any of them have a real shot?
Lewis’ race to lose
By most accounts, the race is Lewis’ to lose. He picked up the party’s endorsement, enjoys a high level of name recognition, and has staked his brand on an uncompromising conservatism that makes him a hero among grass-roots activists.
He has also picked up endorsements from Rep. Tom Emmer, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and a handful of Minnesota state legislators.
Most who pay close attention to this race believe Lewis, who lives in Woodbury, just over the border in the 4th Congressional District, still has the advantage heading into Tuesday’s primary.
At the same time, some CD2 Republicans are discouraged at the rate of Lewis’ fundraising: He had raised about $369,000 through July 20 — not a commanding sum for an endorsed candidate in a competitive, open-seat race. He has just over $100,000 in the bank — so far, he’s spent $250,000 mostly on consulting, some mailers, and overhead — and released his very first TV ad last Friday ahead of the primary.
Lewis’ perceived vulnerabilities have prompted some to speculate there is an opening for Miller, a Burnsville native who runs Permac Industries, a precision parts manufacturing company — work that got her named to the Obama White House’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.
Miller entered the race late after a stronger GOP field failed to materialize, and bypassed the endorsement process to make a run for the primary. She hasn’t exactly pulled even with Lewis, but some Republicans who know the district say they’re impressed by her effort over the past six months and say she’s made the race competitive.
Her campaign has, thus far, been a pretty by-the-books Republican effort, focusing on taxes, jobs, and national security, all with a heavy dash of criticism of Obama and Democrats.
Miller has positioned herself as the Lewis alternative — a conservative-enough option for those who might be turned off by Lewis’ record of stoking controversy. As a radio host, Lewis said a vast majority of young women were “non-thinking;” in a 2011 book on states’ rights, Lewis questioned whether the Civil War was the best, or only way, to end the practice of slavery.
Though she has no political experience, Miller has been tagged as the establishment candidate thanks to her connection with Kline. She has taken advantage of his clout and fundraising network, collecting cash from regular Kline contributors, and traveling to D.C. to fundraise at events hosted by Kline and other GOP congressmen.
As of the end of June, Miller had raised about $375,000 — with $165,000 on hand as of July 20 — on the low end of what some expected, given her access to Kline supporters.
Miller and Lewis are treating the contest like a two-person race. They have taken frequent shots at one another, with Miller’s campaign circulating an article from the conservative Daily Caller calling Lewis “pro-secession” and Lewis’ campaign saying that Miller should have run in the Democratic primary.
Those kinds of attacks have contributed to a nasty dynamic between the two. Miller told MinnPost that Lewis has been telling lies about her, while Lewis suggested the secession article was a plant and that his opponents are throwing “the kitchen sink” at him.
But, whatever Miller and Lewis may think, it’s not in fact a two-person race: Howe, the former state senator and Red Wing mayor, is more of a long shot, but he will be a factor.
He has picked up two key endorsements, earning the backing of the National Rifle Association and the Star Tribune editorial board, which praised his background as a legislator and his record in working with Democrats in St. Paul.
Howe has been doing some campaigning but has kept a lower profile than Miller or Lewis; campaign finance reports show he has only raised $3,500 from contributors since April. In the last fundraising quarter, he paid himself back $150,000 worth of the roughly $650,000 he loaned his campaign.
Meanwhile, Erickson has kept a low profile since entering the race with a Trumpian splash in May. But he could peel away enough votes from another candidate to play spoiler.
Paths to victory
Just how meager might turnout be at CD2 polls on Tuesday?
Miller’s team said the 2012 contest could be a guide: When Kline faced a challenge from Tea Party activist David Gerson, there was no big-ticket statewide primary. Ultimately, 18,631 people voted in the GOP primary, which Kline overwhelmingly won.
But there is not even a nominal statewide primary for governor or U.S. Senate this year. With turnout gradually declining in the past few cycles, says St. Paul GOP operative Matt Pagano, the total this year could easily be south of 18,000.
If Tuesday’s voters are mostly die-hard grass-roots conservatives, Lewis will have the upper hand. His strategy has revolved around shoring up this base — the caucus-goers and party activists who are the most reliable primary voters.
“It isn’t the number so much as who shows up,” Lewis told MinnPost. “Is it the BPOU [Basic Political Operating Unit] leaders, the people who participate in the caucus and have respect for the endorsement process, or is it a larger universe of people who aren’t aware of what went on in the conventions?”
Lewis said that “we’ve laid the groundwork for a broader universe in the primary. I think we’re in a pretty good position for Tuesday.”
Since Lewis is the endorsed candidate, the state party has been active in backing him, and fairly dismissive of Miller, a candidate who never seriously sought the party’s backing.
In a recent press release, the Minnesota GOP said that Lewis is the endorsed candidate “for VERY good reason” and said Miller had “close ties” to national Democrats, using as evidence a photo of her attending the State of the Union in the president’s box, sitting next to Martin O’Malley.
Given her relative unpopularity with the activist base, Miller is attempting to get a broader swath of Republican voters out to the polls. Last week, she told MinnPost before doing a walking tour of Shakopee businesses that “we feel very strongly that we are in the lead.”
She said having the backing of Kline was ultimately more important than the party endorsement; that was the fact she greeted most people with, after her name.
“If you ask 25,000 people out of 700,000 people what they think of John Kline, 99 percent of them know who he is and highly respect him,” Miller said. “But if you ask them, do they know what the endorsement process is, 99 percent go, ‘I’ve never heard of it, what’s a caucus, what’s a BPOU?’”
Howe is also casting a wider net, telling MinnPost that his strategy relies on a “much broader appeal to common-sense folks… Hopefully we can get the Republicans that don’t want the really abrasive politics.”
If he is to be competitive, he will have to turn out voters at his base in the southern section of the district — his old senate seat covers Goodhue, Wabasha, and Winona counties, and he resides in Red Wing, the city he used to run. “If I could get the entire city of Red Wing to come out and vote for me, I’d win the primary,” he said.
The big test awaits
Whoever wins the primary has their work cut out for them.
The DFL candidate, former St. Jude Medical executive Angie Craig, awaits with a $1.7 million war chest, and the enthusiastic backing of national Democrats eager to take this district, which President Obama won twice and both Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar have carried.
Backers of Miller, a first-time candidate who is clearly still learning the ropes, insist she is Republicans’ best shot at holding the seat. Miller said she “truly believes” that Lewis would lose in the general election, with Democrats pouncing on his past controversial statements.
Lewis, who ran for Congress in Colorado in 1990, says he’s the most electable because of his independent streak, and added that his name ID from his time in radio would give him an edge in the general election. “When you go into a general and are well known for an independent streak, that’s a plus. No one knows who John Howe and Darlene Miller are,” he said.
To the prospective voters that Miller encountered at O’Brien’s Public House in Shakopee, though, the primary election — forget the general — remained a distant thought.
As she made the rounds to lunch-hour patrons, several were surprised to hear there was a primary at all.
“That’s how far I follow,” one said. Miller handed out her card, repeated the August 9th date, and moved to the next table.