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After Trump’s disastrous weekend, is Erik Paulsen in trouble?

The four-term congressman disavowed his party’s presidential nominee over the weekend. Democrats are hoping that won’t be enough. 

Throughout the campaign, Paulsen has sought to downplay any attempt to connect him to the controversial Republican presidential nominee.
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig

Last week, as the world heard the 2005 tape of Donald Trump bragging about forcing himself on women, Republican officials — including 3rd District Rep. Erik Paulsen — faced a choice: stick with their party’s nominee for president, or dump him?

Paulsen joined 30 GOP members of Congress, and dozens of other Republicans, in doing the latter: in a statement released over the weekend, Paulsen confirmed he will not be voting for Trump.

National Democrats, and Paulsen’s Democratic challenger, state Sen. Terri Bonoff, had been pressuring Paulsen to disavow Trump for months.

Paulsen finally did, but as Trump’s campaign — and his poll numbers — tanked over the weekend, it’s worth asking: is this latest, most epic Trump meltdown powerful enough to put Paulsen’s seat in play?

So, how bad is it?

Ever since it became clear Trump would be the GOP nominee, Paulsen — who initially backed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — has been successful in repelling the Democratic down-ballot strategy of linking Republican incumbents to Trump.

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The mild-mannered four-term congressman from Eden Prairie doesn’t exactly scream Trump Train, and had used careful language in describing his position on the nominee, always saying he “expected” to support the GOP candidate. That gave him enough room to wiggle out like he did over the weekend, unlike some Republicans who had to walk back an outright endorsement.

He has also steered clear of the media and any Trump questions, declining to appear on TV or radio following his announcement over the weekend. (Paulsen’s campaign declined to make him available for this article.)

Heading into the home stretch of the election, as a key Democratic PAC pulled advertising cash in the 3rd District, Team Paulsen was feeling confident they would be able to weather the Trump storm.

So, if Trump wasn’t a liability for Paulsen before, why might he be now?

A lot of it has to do with numbers: polling conducted in the fallout of Trump’s disastrous weekend found him at his lowest water mark since the general election campaign began.

According to a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Monday morning, Hillary Clinton was ahead of Trump by 14 points in a two-way race. A poll from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Atlantic, released Tuesday morning, found Clinton up 11 points.

The NBC/WSJ poll gave Democrats a seven-point advantage nationally in congressional contests, their best result since the 2013 government shutdown. The takeaway is that Washington GOP leaders, bullish a month ago on their chances to hold the Senate and the House, are starting to get worried.

If these numbers hold — and it’s hard to say if they will — Paulsen will need a very high percentage of voters in the 3rd District to split their tickets.

Certainly, selecting a Democrat for president and a Republican for Congress is something CD3 voters are comfortable with. In 2008, Barack Obama defeated John McCain here by four points, and Paulsen won his first term by an eight-point margin.

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But a double-digit lead for Democrats at the top of the ticket would be a major problem for Paulsen. Though Clinton is hardly a popular candidate, Trump has struggled to gain traction in Minnesota, and is particularly unpopular in suburban districts like the 3rd, where he performed dismally on caucus night.

Some national GOP leaders appear to recognize the risks of the situation: on a Monday conference call with Republican lawmakers, Speaker Paul Ryan declared he would no longer spend time defending Trump, and instructed his conference to decide what they needed to do to win in their districts.

Minnesota Republicans not panicking

Despite the top-of-the-ticket chaos, those in Minnesota GOP circles said it was hardly time to hit the panic button in CD3 just yet.

Broadly, they leaned heavily on the particularities of CD3 voters — along with Paulsen’s advantage as an incumbent — to explain why he might be less endangered by the turn of events than GOP incumbents elsewhere in the country.

John Rouleau, who runs the conservative-aligned Minnesota Jobs Coalition, said that CD3 is a “unique place,” owing to its record of strong, often state-leading turnout, and its history of ticket-splitting.

In 2012, 82 percent of voting-age adults in CD3 voted in the general election, nine points higher than the statewide average.

“I think that Paulsen is in a good place right now, as far as incumbents go,” Rouleau said, and added that Paulsen has raised plenty of money to defend himself. (He had $3.2 million in the bank as of late July.)

According to Gregg Peppin, a longtime GOP operative, Paulsen has an advantageous combination of strong name identification and a broadly positive reputation that not all GOP incumbents might enjoy.

“There’s a lot of chatter in some circles that this is the game-changer, maybe some other districts where the Republican incumbent has higher negatives,” Peppin said. “The question is, does it filter down to the 3rd Congressional District? Does it overcome the familiarity that people have with Erik Paulsen?”

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Peppin said Bonoff is a credible candidate, but that “in the vast majority of the 3rd Congressional District, she’s just not known.” (Bonoff’s Senate District 44 encompasses Plymouth, Minnetonka, and Woodland.)

“I don’t think Trump’s comments are a game changer in that equation. I don’t think it moves the needle.”

“Are some people going to be swayed? I suppose,” Peppin said. “I would be shocked if it made a dent.”

Democrats sense opportunity

But Democrats are trying hard to make that dent. If knocking off Paulsen seemed like a tough ask when Bonoff entered the race in April, an October Trump implosion may have been the scenario where she and Democrats saw opportunity.

On Tuesday morning, Bonoff’s campaign was out with a TV ad reflecting the strategy they’ll likely carry through to Election Day: asking why Paulsen didn’t denounce Trump earlier, such as when he picked a fight with the parents of Captain Humayun Khan, a Muslim-American soldier who was killed in Iraq.

It’s unclear if these attacks will stick any better than the ones Democrats lobbed at Paulsen before he disavowed Trump. Paulsen can now freely follow Ryan’s directive to do what he needs to do to win the district, even if it means bashing Trump.

It’s not as if there are not problems with that approach, though: the NBC/WSJ poll found that two-thirds of Republican voters said those in their party should stick with Trump.

Some Republicans concede that Paulsen could be in a tough spot if his disavowal of Trump turns off base voters, and if moderate voters are so turned off by the presidential side that they decide to stay home.

Steven Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton College, said that turnout could be low. “I expect turnout to be down in every state,” he said. “It’ll be down nationally, it should be down in Minnesota.”

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There should be polling on the particulars of the 3rd Congressional District soon enough. For now, Republicans are hanging their hopes on the voters who have stuck with Paulsen the last four election cycles, no matter what happened nationally.

“Trump was my last pick of the candidates,” said Jennifer DeJournett, a 3rd District Republican activist who previously backed Carly Fiorina.

“It is what it is. We’re focusing on the races we can have impact on,” she said. “Erik’s gonna run away with it.”

Correction: This article has been updated to accurately reflect the amount of Paulsen’s cash on hand.