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

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

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.

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.

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?”

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.”

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. 

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/11/2016 - 10:31 am.

    Erik Paulsen

    Rep. Paulsen has made a career out of being inoffensive and colorless. Recognizing that his views no longer reflect those of his changing constituency, his approach is to disappear from the public scene while counting on the inability of a dysfunctional DFL to recognize political opportunity which is apparent to just about everyone else. It really took the rise of Donald Trump to demonstrate to all of us that the GOP both locally and nationally has ceased to exist as a positive force in our national life. Today, the party of which Paulsen is an integral part, exists only to obstruct any sort of national agenda, while perpetuating it’s existence in office.

  2. Submitted by mark robbins on 10/11/2016 - 10:52 am.

    Erik Paulsen

    I have always voted Republican in our District. I emailed Rep Paulsen regarding his support of Trump and did not hear any response. I am writing in Kasich for President and backing Terri Bonoff for Congress. Terri has been very supportive to one of the charitable organizations I serve on the Board. We need new leadership and responsiveness in our District, not someone who cannot stand up to Trump and make it clear his statement offend all Minnesotans and the values that we stand for in our State.

  3. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/11/2016 - 10:58 am.

    He’s no Jim Ramstad

    Erik Paulsen has never shown any willingness what-so-ever to buck the party line and as the party moves further to the right, and away from the 3rd district political mainstream, a vote for Paulsen is like electing Louie Gohmert our Representative: they will vote in lockstep. Louie would not get to 20% in this district and anything over 20% for Paulsen are people fooled by Paulsen’s Ramstad look alike signs.

    Terri Bonoff has shown the ability to buck the DFL party line as State Senator for issues that line up with 3rd district priorities. She is far closer to Jim Ramstad, a guy who followed his conscience even if it ruffled party feathers.

    Erik is a nice guy who will find success in his next career.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 10/11/2016 - 12:57 pm.

      Ramstad and Frenzel before him

      Were independent on a variety of issues.

      • Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 10/11/2016 - 02:22 pm.

        But Paulsen Is Not

        Bill Frenzel and Jim Ramstad were willing to disengage from the Republican House leadership when it served their constituents interests. Erik Paulsen is as loyal a soldier to Speaker Paul Ryan as one can find. Paulsen toes the Republican Party line and has shown no inclination to either re-draw the line or step away from it.

      • Submitted by Clayton Haapala on 10/11/2016 - 11:23 pm.

        Ramstad was nice, too, but…

        … I had to stop voting for him because he enabled the bad behavior of his caucus.
        Paulsen has been a member of the laziest Congresses of at least the past 20.

  4. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 10/11/2016 - 10:58 am.

    Part of Republican House

    In recent years, the Republican House has accomplished almost nothing of value. They have done nothing to address the nation’s leading problems, preferring to focus on getting reelected, being away from Washington, beating dead horse issues like Benghazi and passing symbolic bills that have no chance of becoming law. Paulsen for better or worse is one reason why the House is so ineffective. Replacing him with a Democrat will help break the legislative logjam and move the House back to be the legislative body that the Constitution writers wanted to create.

  5. Submitted by Geo. Greene on 10/11/2016 - 11:05 am.

    Where’s Waldo

    Here in the 3rd we call him Where’s Waldo. He does not hold public meetings where anyone can ask a question and everyone can hear. His town halls are via telephone and with little or no notice. His Congress on the Corner events require constituents come up to him one on one where others cannot listen. Call his office to find out how he plans to vote on an bill and virtually every time you will get a non committal answer from a staffer; i.e., it is almost impossible to know his position on a bill until he votes.

    It’s no coincidence that his campaign signs are the same colors as Jim Ramstad’s (who was popular even among Democrats) – he wants you to think he’s just like Ramstad -fiscally conservative and socially liberal (which by the way could be a description of Terri Bonoff). His record shows, though, that he’s pretty much been in lockstep with the likes of Michele Bachman. I’m guessing his caginess on Trump has not been because he’s been searching his soul, but that he’s afraid public support for Trump will cause his invisibility cloak to come off.

  6. Submitted by Keith Butcher on 10/11/2016 - 12:27 pm.

    Too late

    Sorry Eric. Count me as one of your lost votes. At the beginning of the year I was inclined to vote for you, but you simply took too long to denounce Donald Trump. Apparently I sent in my ballot a full week before you finally made a decision. Some of us don’t need to wait so long to do what is right.

  7. Submitted by Janice Kehler on 10/11/2016 - 06:08 pm.

    Too Late

    Eric Paulsen had an opportunity to do the right thing… not the political thing. His lack of clarity at such egregious speech from his party’s leader means only one thing… he agrees with the immoral drivel. He is unfit to represent the third district and should be voted out of office–forever.

  8. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 10/12/2016 - 07:10 am.

    It’s a three party system now

    Nice comments above. Paulsen keeps his head down and does what he’s told by those I disagree with. With Trump in revolt I would think the Republican vote has been fractured so that if he supports Trump he gets that half of the Republican vote. If he stands up to Trump he gets the other half, the more traditional half, of the Republican vote. In any case, the Klan loves Trump and that is a good enough reason for me to hate him. I didn’t need a tape confirming what we already knew about him.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/12/2016 - 08:13 am.

    Inoffensive?

    Forget Trump, look at his campaign ads. Pawlenty and his republican comrade’s created the $6 billion deficit with their magical tax cut budgets and Paulson is blaming Bonoff? His campaign ads are a 30 second tirade of falsehoods, that’s offensive isn’t it?

    Likewise Mill’s accusing Nolan of bringing terrorists into the country is flat out toxic and false.

    These are toxic people. We may not have tapes of them bragging about sex but that doesn’t mean they’re meek and harmless white bread do gooder’s.

    A republican analyst on TV recently referred to the intellectual rot that’s gripped the party in recent years (I’d say decades) and he’s absolutely correct. Let’s not extend that rot out to the population at large by pretending that guys like Paulson are OK just because we don’t have a tape of them saying something awful. Look at his voting record for crying out loud.

  10. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 10/12/2016 - 09:01 am.

    Marching to the Republican Party

    Paulsen endorsed Trump. Now he owns Trump. Just like George W. Bush, the Republicans can’t get away from Trump. Boil, boil, toil, and trouble. The Republican political stew continues to boil. Their scorched earth tactics will eventually burn the stew.

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