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What Minnesota’s candidates for Congress are saying about themselves — and their opponents — in the first batch of TV ads

From Stewart Mills’ hardscrabble past to Angie Craig’s prowess in the boardroom, candidates are trying to sell the best versions of themselves to voters. Descriptions of opponents are less charitable.

It’s that time again: if you watch television, you’re about to be assailed at every commercial break by people who call themselves “independent” and “hardworking” — while calling other people “weak” and “dangerous.”

With the primaries over and the State Fair set to kick off, the political season has arrived in earnest in Minnesota — and that means ads, ads, and more ads.

Minnesota has three competitive U.S. House races, which candidates and outside groups will be seeking to influence by spending heavily on political ads.

In the Minnesota 2nd and 8th District races, candidates have already begun airing ads, and reserving chunks of airtime through Election Day. What are they saying?

Political newcomers look to define themselves

In at least one regard, the races in CD2 and CD8 couldn’t be more different: one features the same two candidates who ran in 2014 and the other features two first-time candidates for office in Minnesota.

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That creates two different dilemmas for the candidates in those races.

In the 2nd, Democrat Angie Craig and Republican Jason Lewis, neither of whom have run for office in the district before, will need to define themselves for voters early in the race.

Both candidates released TV ads in early August introducing themselves to voters in the district, which has been represented by retiring GOP Rep. John Kline since 2003.

Lewis and Craig are both political outsiders with different challenges. Many voters may know Lewis, who spent 20 years in talk radio, but his long career as a commentator comes with baggage: his controversial comments and writings on women, race relations, and the Civil War have been heavily scrutinized by local and national media.

Craig, meanwhile, is a political neophyte, so she’s something of a blank slate. She is originally from Arkansas, and came to Minnesota to work at St. Jude Medical, a Fortune 500 medical technology firm in Ramsey County, where she was most recently a senior vice president.

Craig’s first ad — which hit airwaves in early August — was a 30-second biographical spot. It depicts Craig walking around a corporate office, talking to people as Craig explained the HR-focused work she did at St. Jude Medical, such as promoting a women in leadership program.

“We did good by doing what’s right,” she says. “Time to make Congress do the same.”

The ad is glossy and feels a little forced — the ending, in which Craig walks into a board room for a meeting, is particularly awkward — but it effectively puts forth the business-oriented message that the Craig camp will likely deploy in an attempt to win moderates in the swingy 2nd District.

Lewis, meanwhile, ran his first ad days before the August 9 primary, in which he soundly defeated three GOP challengers.

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The 30-second spot did the dual work of bolstering Lewis ahead of the primary and laying down the foundation of his general election bid.

For Lewis, defining himself entails pushing back — implicitly and explicitly — against attacks from both left and right. In his ad, he attempts to turn perceived weaknesses into strengths.

The candidate begins the ad by recasting his talk radio experience as something as substantial as it was entertaining: “Every day on the radio, for 20 years,” he says to the camera, “we’ve talked about solutions to our biggest problems.”

Then he says, “all the politically correct politicians do is attack people like you and me who want real change,” a not-so-veiled reference to his Democratic and Republican rivals who’ve made hay with his past statements.

Lewis concludes with what CD2 voters are likely to hear a lot in the coming months: “I’ll be an independent voice for Minnesota,” he says.

Right now, Craig holds a $1.5 million cash advantage over Lewis in this race, and has already reserved major chunks of airtime on the big four Twin Cities networks through November. Her campaign has paid for $176,000 worth of ads through August 22.

Lewis, on the other hand, has not reserved any time yet on KARE, KMSP, KSTP, or WCCO. Federal Communications Commission disclosure requirements are incomplete — it exempts ad buys made for cable channels — so it provides only a partially complete picture.

Mills: trying to hit reset

In the 8th District, Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan and Republican Stewart Mills will need to make their cases again to voters who remember them — and their attacks — from the last election.

Mills, as a challenger who narrowly lost in 2014, had to get out early with an ad that re-introduced him to CD8 voters.

Fittingly, he had the earliest ad of the cycle, a 60-second biographical spot from May, featuring two men who work for Shipman Auto Parts in Brainerd.

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Both claimed to know Mills from when he was a young kid learning the family business at Mills Ford, a car dealership in Brainerd owned by the Mills family, which also founded the Fleet Farm chain of outdoor retailers. (They sold the chain last year to a New York investment firm.)

They talked about how Mills “worked his way up” and “got his hands dirty,” calling him a hard worker and a common-sense guy. “It’s time for a lot of new people” in Congress, Kurt Hopp of Baxter said, “and that’d be Stewart Mills.”

To understand why the Mills campaign made this ad, look back to the 2014 election, when Democrats tarred Mills — whose net worth is somewhere from the low tens of millions of dollars to the low hundreds of millions — as an out-of-touch heir to a family fortune in a series of slick ads paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Those attacks cut deep, and clearly got under Mills’ skin — the mere mention of them still gets him and his allies riled up. Even some CD8 Democrats admit that some of the ads crossed a line.

But Nolan still won, and the perception the Democratic ads pushed on Mills may worry his campaign enough that they wanted to push back against it early.

Talking about your opponent

As important as it is to establish a positive image of yourself as a candidate, we all know the real fun of campaign ads — tearing down your inferior, bad-for-America opponent.

Mills got the ball rolling at the beginning of August with a 30-second advertisement slamming Nolan for his stance on terror and the admittance of Syrian refugees into the U.S.

Ominous images of ISIS fighters flash on the screen as the narrator intones that Minnesota is a hotbed of terror recruitment and that ISIS is using the refugee program to “infiltrate” the U.S.

The ad claims that Nolan supports bringing 100,000 unvetted Syrian refugees to the U.S. by the end of 2016. “Rick Nolan is weak, and dangerous,” the ad concludes.

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It’s a broadside that makes sense in a congressional race where foreign policy and national security are figuring in as major issues. But, as several outlets have pointed out, the ad gets its facts wrong.

Last September, Nolan did call for the U.S. to step up its resettlement of refugees from the Middle East as the humanitarian crisis there drew more attention.

But in the wake of terror attacks in Europe, Nolan ended up joining House Republicans — and Minnesota Democratic Reps. Tim Walz and Collin Peterson — in voting to toughen the refugee admission process by adding new screening measures.

After the Mills ad went to air, WCCO called its characterization of Nolan’s stance on refugees “false,” and the nonpartisan called it “particularly dishonest.”

That gave Nolan an opening for his first ad of the cycle, which is hitting Minnesota airwaves now.

The 30-second ad begins by citing the fact-checks of Mills’ ad, and claims he is “running another smear campaign.” It then goes on to play up Nolan’s own national security bona fides, ending with a hunting-gear-clad Nolan shooting a rifle.

“Rick Nolan: Minnesota tough,” the narrator concludes.

The ad accomplishes a lot for Nolan: it pushes back against an attack, while advancing messaging on national security and — in a more subtle way — gun rights. (The Democrat may have some re-branding work to do on that front after national Republicans had a laugh at Nolan’s expense in 2014, when they pilloried how Nolan handled a firearm at a campaign event.)

CD8 voters will be blitzed with ads this month: according to FCC records, the Nolan campaign has reserved $99,000 worth of ad time through August 29 on the big four Twin Cities networks, which reach voters in the southern end of the district. Mills paid for $215,000 worth of time for the first half of the month on those networks.

For the month of August, Nolan reserved $22,045 worth of ads on Duluth broadcast stations, while Mills reserved $16,428 of time.

Both Mills and Nolan have change in the bank — though Nolan has the advantage, $978,000 to $258,000 as of the July filing — and well-funded outside groups are looking to move the needle in this close race, so this is only the beginning.

There is one more Minnesota district in which people can expect a lot of ads: the 3rd, where DFL State Sen. Terri Bonoff is challenging incumbent GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen. Nothing from the campaigns is on the air yet, though the DCCC has run a national anti-Trump ad in the district in an effort to hurt Paulsen.

The Republican has over $3 million in the bank, and Bonoff will have enough to run her own ads, so West Metro voters won’t be safe from CD3 attack ads for long.