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It turns out Jason Lewis was a mini-Trump. Which is why he won.

MinnPost file photo by Steve Date
Jason Lewis gave voters a pretty clear idea of what he’d do if elected.

It’s the story of the 2016 election: a well-funded, establishment-backed candidate with a sterling background is heavily favored to win — not least because of her opponent’s well-documented history of outrageous, controversial statements. Add to that the fact that her opponent’s campaign barely seems organized at all.

But we’re not talking about the presidential race; we’re talking about the contest in Minnesota’s Second Congressional District.

Out of the hundreds of congressional races run in 2016, for a mirror image of the presidential campaign look to the contest between Republican Jason Lewis and Democrat Angie Craig.

From the candidates’ qualities, to their messages, and to the final results — surprising upsets for the Republican side — the parallels between the presidential race and the CD2 race are almost too perfect.

The fundamentals

First, the fundamentals: Minnesota’s 2nd is a swing district, encompassing Democratic-leaning inner-ring suburbs and college towns with Republican-leaning suburbs, exurbs and rural areas.

But changing demographics and a recent round of redistricting here made Democrats believe that, once Rep. John Kline retired, that they would have the votes to turn this district blue.

For the entire election, CD2 was rated as a toss-up or a lean Democratic contest by most prognosticators — never did a Republican, after Kline’s announcement, have an edge.

Onto the candidates: Hillary Clinton and Craig shared similar strengths and weaknesses: both women were polished and poised on the stump, but came off as overly rehearsed and wonkish to some.

Both both built strong, professional campaigns peopled by seasoned operatives, machines purpose-built to knock on millions of doors and raise millions of dollars.

In the final stretch of the campaign, both Clinton and Craig’s camps touted record-breaking get-out-the-vote operations, engaging voters in key swing states and precincts.

Trump and Lewis are very similar, too — so similar, in fact, that more than one D.C. outlet dubbed Lewis a “mini-Trump.”

Both men have a certain celebrity appeal — Lewis, a former radio host, is known in Minnesota from his two decades on air — and little traditional political experience.

Both have a record of controversial statements that they embraced, not repudiated, and explicitly ran on anti-establishment, independent-minded messaging.

On the campaign trail, both candidates seemed to prefer radio hits and TV interviews to reach voters over a retail, nuts-and-bolts strategy favored by Democrats. Depending on who you talk to, this kind of campaign is either “unconventional” or “bad.”

And in fundraising, they both struggled, having alienated some major, establishment-aligned wallets in the GOP. Trump was consistently outraised by Clinton; at one point in October, Craig had 15 times as much cash on hand as Lewis.

The back-and-forth

The attacks that Craig and Democrats launched on Craig, and the ones that Lewis and the GOP made on Lewis, were also remarkably similar.

In both races, Democrats bet big that their GOP opponents’ fondness for stoking controversy would be deal-breakers for a big chunk of the electorate.

Clinton and Craig ran what was, basically, the same ad: in CD2 Democrats ran a simple spot stringing together some of Lewis’ more outrageous statements, focusing on women and slavery.

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For months, the Clinton campaign ran a supercut of some of Trump’s greatest hits, seen through the eyes of children watching TV.

Clinton and Craig also made plenty of substantive, policy-based arguments against their opponents; both camps argued that Trump and Lewis held views outside the GOP mainstream and were radioactive to sensible Republicans.

Ultimately, though, both camps trusted that if all else failed, enough voters would find Trump’s and Lewis’ temperaments and past statements disqualifying for public office — and spent millions driving home the point.

On the GOP side, both campaigns sought to define their Democratic opponent as a political insider, the establishment, someone who would advance the Democratic-aligned status quo.

Just as Democrats tried to link Lewis and Trump on their terms, Republicans tried to link Craig and Clinton on theirs.

As Trump’s team said Clinton’s charitable foundation was an avenue for “pay-to-play” politics, Lewis made the same allegation against Craig, claiming that her work doling out political contributions from St. Jude Medical’s PAC amounted to shady influence-dealing, D.C. politics-as-usual.

Democrats’ challenges with big-picture messaging were similar in both races, too. A major storyline out of 2016 was Clinton’s struggle to construct a compelling narrative for her candidacy and her political vision, as Barack Obama had so effectively done.

Similarly, DFL consultant Darin Broton said, Craig failed to successfully sell an overarching narrative of her candidacy to voters.

“The challenge for the Craig campaign was not only do you tie Jason to Donald Trump, but you have to do the pivot about why do the voters need to hire Angie Craig,” he said. “That message never really came out. It was all focused on the things Jason had said over the course of his radio career.”

“What was so missing in that successful recipe of winning election day was creating the narrative that when people go vote, it’s not a vote against someone, it’s a vote for someone.”

The conventional wisdom

Smart people on both sides assumed both Trump and Lewis would lose. The conventional wisdom was that their appeals were too narrow, too limited to their core base of supporters, to win a general election.

The Craig and Clinton campaigns were confident heading into the home stretch. The Craig camp felt it had outclassed Lewis in every metric — fundraising, ground game — and Clinton-world was sure of the same, and bet that Trump’s “silent majority” would not show.

Craig’s team was overconfident, said Matt Pagano, a GOP operative from St. Paul who was bullish on Lewis’ chances through the campaign when others were not.

“They had the numbers, the fundraising, the things we can publicly see that would lead them to a false sense of security, much like with Clinton. I don’t know if there’s a way she could have won.”

Experts and analysts will spend months figuring out how Trump pulled off one of the greatest upsets in American political history.

It’s safe to say Lewis’ win — just over two points ahead of Craig — doesn’t quite earn that billing. But how did he defy this race’s conventional wisdom?

For one, Lewis gave voters a pretty clear idea of what he’d do if elected. Like Trump saying repeatedly that he would repeal trade deals, Lewis ran hard with the rolling bad news on Obamacare, and hammered home that he’d help repeal the law if elected.

This isn’t to say Craig didn’t tell voters what she would do in office. But in this election, Minnesota voters proved hungry for change, and health care was a particularly salient issue.

For Craig, it didn’t cut it to argue to keep Obamacare while making incremental improvements — just like Clinton’s claim she’d work on fair free trade deals was a non-starter with many.

Beyond that, the conventional wisdom may have been too bullish on Craig’s path to victory. Several people remarked to me that outlets like Cook put CD2 in the “lean Democrat” column far too soon: they did so after Lewis won his primary in August, and moved it back to toss-up ahead of Election Day.

Though CD2 has a history of voting Democratic for president and in U.S. Senate races, and there are more Democrats than before, there are still a lot of Republicans here.

Trump and Lewis’ supporters showed up, and Clinton and Craig’s didn’t. Just as Clinton counted on turnout from states like Michigan that did not materialize, Craig was counting on votes from Dakota County — where the district’s bluer inner-ring suburbs are —  to put her over the top. Craig ultimately won there, but didn’t run up the score, matching the 2012 vote total earned by Mike Obermueller, who unsuccessfully challenged Kline.

(This year, Lewis won with 47.11 percent of the vote, Craig earned 45 percent, and Independence candidate Paula Overby won 7.79 percent.)

Other Democratic candidates in the state were able to turn out their bases as Clinton support lagged. Rep. Rick Nolan mined Duluth and its surroundings for enough votes to eke out a narrow win, even as Clinton was 15 points underwater in the 8th District.

Nolan and Craig both touted solid ground games. But that, clearly, could only get you so far in what’s already being called a Republican wave in Minnesota.

Ultimately, Lewis was able to tap into the same vein of feeling that Trump busted wide open. “Jason’s narrative, if you talked to folks, though Jason says these goofy things, it’s clear he’s not a part of the Republican establishment,” Broton said.

“The same motivating factor that got Trump elected played to the advantage of Jason Lewis. He was willing to shake things up and people said, I’m ticked at the establishment, I’m sick of being screwed… Jason will fight for me.”

Clinton, no matter how good her staff or her fundraising totals, no matter the flaws of her opponent or his campaign, couldn’t overcome that kind of sentiment. And neither could Angie Craig.

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Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 11/10/2016 - 11:05 am.

    Ah, yup, he is.

    No surprises, except for the DFL campaign priority machinery. [see 11/9 comment]

    Has the opponent ever been more a known quantity than Jason Lewis? Doubt it: Let’s see: medium-time radio personality, known communication gifts/tactics, known to very many, known “jerk” to be shown as that.

    The DFL simply blew this one…big time, leaving a very good candidate swinging on her own.
    Priorities, anyone?

    [Honest note for all to ponder, regardless of social biases: The next time you hear a very qualified and
    honest female candidate mention “my wife,” keep listening for information pertinent to the job and the postion contested.]

    Somebody had to voice what others would not. Too little, too late? Way to go DFL, you blew the most
    clear cut contest of all, this time.

    (btw: how much money did you spend on radio spots in CD2? also too obvious?)

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 11/10/2016 - 12:23 pm.

      I don’t know if Craig really had a chance this election

      This year’s surprising turnout of people who otherwise stay home was defined by voter anger and a desire to elect the angriest candidate. Jason Lewis fits that perfectly.

      People who are angry and scared can’t be reasoned with.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 11/10/2016 - 11:24 am.

    When Dayton came out and said what

    Lewis was saying “the ACA is no longer affordable” , Jason Lewis won his race and Minnesota voted in the GOP to check Governor Dayton. When the voters see a politician, like Dayton, do a 180 degree turn on Obamacare, it makes you wonder how the Governor could be so wrong on an issue so important to so many. Admitting you were wrong on Obamacare is an admirable thing (most here just keep defending it blindly because of Party loyalty) but being right on it from the start is way more important. Regular folks who work for a living want the person making ldecisions about their life (keeping Doctor, affordable insurance) to be informed and right, not apologetic.

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 11/10/2016 - 12:31 pm.

      Lewis was on NPR yesterday

      You can find the interview here: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/11/09/jason-lewis-congress-republican-mandate

      He said he would repeal Obamacare first thing and replace it with “something”. Not really a compelling message for me but I guess it resonated with voters. If you don’t provide any details there is no way to attack your plan. It is a little disturbing that this isn’t an instance where they didn’t just decline to tell people the plan but apparently they still don’t have a plan. Maybe we’ll find out what is in the Republican health care plan after they pass it too.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 11/13/2016 - 11:54 am.

        Well…

        That’s pretty close to how Nancy P. so firmly answered questions about ACA details, isn’t it?
        That’s also the way our legislative process works in practice for “The People,” except for the minuscule minority of people who closely follow committee meetings and “mark-up” sessions on C-SPAN 1 & 2.

  3. Submitted by Bob Petersen on 11/10/2016 - 11:49 am.

    Too Much Overconfidence

    Craig, the DFL, and the DNCC all got this one wrong in their approach. Way too much trying to define Lewis as bad as they proclaim and not nearly enough on why to vote for Craig other than she has corporate experience. When you listen…which seems to be a big theme in this election…Lewis has a very strong command over the issues, of what he would like to do, and also what has not worked in the past. Lewis knew the Democrat game plan and predicted it right.
    Negative advertising does work. But if you can’t tie your platform to why people should vote for you, you turn off the voters.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/10/2016 - 12:58 pm.

    Not my district

    …fortunately. There’s some truth in both Jim Million’s and Joe Smith’s comments. Since it’s not my district, and I don’t listen to the radio anyway, I’ve no idea if more DFL money spent on radio advertising would have helped Craig or not, or if she was left “swinging on her own,” but she could have used some assistance, obviously.

    That’s because Jason Lewis is among the more obnoxious people to run for political office that I’ve seen. Using his own words against him should have been enough to turn away thoughtful voters anywhere in the district, which doesn’t speak very well of the voters in that district who are sending Lewis to Washington. Slavery is OK as long as you don’t tell me I have to own one? Young women are “non-thinking?” Those two statements alone should have been enough to sink his campaign all by themselves. A radio troll is a radio troll, no matter where he is.

    I do think – Joe Smith doesn’t quite say this, but I will – that the Governor helped the Lewis cause immensely (and that of Republicans statewide, not to mention Mr. Trump) with his choice of words regarding MNsure. Saying “MNsure has some problems that we need to fix” would have been far less damaging to DFL candidates across the state than “The Affordable Care Act is no longer affordable.” Jason Lewis is, to be polite, blowing smoke about a replacement for the ACA. Republicans in Minnesota and in Washington have had several YEARS to devise an alternative, and instead of doing so, they’ve wasted everyone’s time with stupid “repeal Obamacare” votes in the House that not only get nowhere, they do nothing to address the things that need fixing in the ACA.

    The GOP still doesn’t have an alternate plan, which should tell thoughtful observers something about how serious they are about devising one. The irony in all the criticism of the ACA is that it’s essentially a Republican plan, devised by the Heritage Institute, and implemented in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney. Republican hatred of the ACA is either misplaced or, gosh, hypocritical.

    I’m inclined to agree that a mistake Democrats made here and nationally is one that Bob Peterson mentions: Too much about why we should not vote for ‘x,’ and not enough about why we should vote for ‘y.’ If you’re going to “go negative,” it ought to be limited and targeted, and not overwhelm the positive message of why people should vote FOR you.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 11/10/2016 - 01:34 pm.

      Again, well said, Ray

      Will important elections always be determined by TV fans, much like football junkies, who treat elections like sport to be viewed in a sports bar with buddies, beer and angry bladders? Probably…

    • Submitted by Mike Garberg on 11/10/2016 - 04:01 pm.

      Why is it the Republicans’ responsibility to fix the ACA?

      Ray, I’m perplexed by your statement that you blame Republicans for not “addressing the things that need fixing in the ACA”. I believe history will show that only Democrats voted for Obamacare, not one single Republican voted for this albatross. So therefore you blame Republicans for not fixing it? Huh? Are you proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Democrats are incapable of taking responsibility for their own messes and instead blame everyone else?

      Then you go on to say that Republicans “had several YEARS to devise an alternative”. Umm, the ACA has been the law of the land for several years. Do you honestly think that if the Republican’s had come up with an alternative health plan and passed the legislation that Obama would have signed it into law? Really? You have to REPEAL the existing law first. Congrats my friend, you have provided Exhibit A in How to Create a Straw Man Argument.

      • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 11/10/2016 - 04:24 pm.

        You don’t have to repeal a law to think of an alternative

        If that was true then nobody could ever write a position paper on an issue until all laws are repealed.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 11/11/2016 - 09:10 am.

        Fair Point, Mike

        ACA was transformational in nature, at least as philosophically intended if not in mechanization.
        There are elements that certainly can be used in a more effective scheme [one hopes the data link system that cost everyone far too much, for example].

        We must remember that the clear, but greatly understated purpose of ACA was to provide benefits to the uninsured lower rungs of public access, principally the Medicaid shadow landers. That element has greatly succeeded. The overall program has failed mainly because the transfer payment scheme of funding expanded Medicaid via mandates on everyone else never was functionally realistic, as we quickly saw.

        Whatever comes to “replace” the misbegotten ACA scheme must draw on realism of American cultural norms and business knowledge. My professionally retired opinion is that any new program must be designed by those who know what “health insurance” really is and how it works and does not work. The last people we need in the revision are Ivy League “monks” and “healthcare economists,” whatever they are supposed to be.

        “Healthcare Economist”: That’s a typically bureaucratic title of misbegotten expertise. Nonsense words, as the public should now understand.

      • Submitted by Dave Paulson on 11/13/2016 - 05:57 pm.

        So the GOP has no responsibility to govern, at all?

        Mike:
        In the big picture, do you deny that our most-expensive-in-the-world and still 20% of the population-has no-insurance system needed fixing?

        Do you deny that the GOP made no serious effort to fix our expensive and poor coverage system in all the years it obviously needed it (since at least the 1990s)?
        Do you deny that they went on record as vowing to oppose all things Obama, and so made the window of opportunity with a Democrat Congress the one chance to at least try?
        Do you deny that the skeleton they worked on was similar to 2 prior GOP and/or conservative think tanks formats, and they involved the insurance industry to get infrastructure buy-in?
        Can you show a serious, comprehensive GOP health care reform proposal anywhere, and if so what percentage of has some of the ACA in it?

        It is a big-picture cop-out to say because they did not like it (and they hated it long before they saw it) they had no responsibility to fix it, when they made no effort to help the problem for 10+ years before OR at least offer something.

        This attitude of willing your fellow legislators to fail as much as possible, and then say the lack of progress is all their fault, as a party-wide and long-term strategy is just plain wrong. You will finally see some repair to the ACA out of practical matters, and it would not be a priority what so ever in the new Washington had the Dems not passed that.

        • Submitted by Mike Garberg on 11/16/2016 - 12:35 am.

          If ain’t broke, don’t fix it

          Hi Dave
          The reason it’s expensive is because it’s the best in the world. Why do so many patients from Canada and the Middle East come here for care? And you don’t have to wait three months to get your cholesterol tested compared to single-payer systems.

          Are you trying to argue that ANY plan was better than the status quo? You have to admit that since the ACA has been enacted, it has been a disaster and has gone the opposite direction that Obama promised. Premiums went up 50% when he said they would go down; you can keep your doctor! Whoops, no you can’t. How about Nancy Pelosi, “You have to pass the bill to see what’s in it..” Even the architect of the ACA is on record saying it would not work. I have no idea if the GOP had a plan or were working on one in the 90’s or later. That’s not my point. The democrats created this plan and it’s not working. Premiums are through the roof and working families and the poor are hurting because of it. Rather than blame the GOP, they knew what was going to happen and they need to be held accountable.

          Even one of the redeemable parts of the ACA, where young people can stay on their parents’ plan until age 26 is flawed. If the goal of the ACA is to attract young, healthy people to the plan to balance out the older and sicker people, then why let them stay on their parents’ plan when they are needed for the ACA pool to make it affordable??? Doesn’t make any sense.

          I wouldn’t deny that the GOP would oppose Obama’s agenda. The democrats did the same thing to GWB.

          Maybe the healthcare system needed a complete overhaul, who knows? But the current system is not working. You have a point that it wouldn’t be a priority unless it was passed, so let’s see if Trump and company will keep the pre-existing condition and dependents staying on their parents’ plan when the ACA is undoubtedly reformed.

  5. Submitted by Jeff Michaels on 11/10/2016 - 02:11 pm.

    The ‘evil’ Jason Lewis

    I commend the Craig campaign for its effort in putting together various taped observations Lewis made in his decades as a talk show commentator. The “pro-slavery” comment was especially effective. If they could have located taped commentary revealing Lewis advocated throwing puppies off the top of the IDS Center, their candidate might have won.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/11/2016 - 09:21 am.

      Gloating Much?

      That doesn’t overshadow the fact that the voters of the second district have seen fit to elect as their representative a pseudo intellectual poser whose only qualification for office was years spent as a radio provocateur.

  6. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/10/2016 - 07:29 pm.

    Campaign spending in 2nd Congressional

    Sam Brodey said this in his October 18 article about the Craig-Lewis race:

    “Lewis is still at a huge cash disadvantage: by the end of September, he had $57,000 cash on hand, compared to Craig’s $900,000. To stay competitive, he will need to lean heavily on the continued support of outside groups, and earned media like debates and radio and TV appearances.”

    This was near the end of a campaign in which Angie Craig enjoyed a huge cash advantage.
    I contributed to Craig’s campaign though she’s not my district and did so after numerous and seemingly desperate on-line appeals for cash because of being outspent by Lewis and the RNCC. And maybe others? Did Craig’s cash advantage dematerialize after October 18? Where did Lewis’s cash come from?

    I’d be interested in seeing the final campaign expenditures from this campaign for each candidate. How much came from PACs like the RNCC? How much dark money was spent in this election? is there any way of finding out? That’s part of the whole election which I’m anxious to hear about. It seems like a lot of money came into the campaign at the 11th hour. What coordination is going on here?

  7. Submitted by Pauline Wahl on 11/11/2016 - 01:06 am.

    You failed to mention their toughest challenge

    Both Clinton and Craig are women.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 11/11/2016 - 09:16 am.

      Sorry

      They are very different in nature and background.
      To conjoin these candidates by gender is simply so ’70s.
      Women won many election battles once again, did they not?
      Time to become contemporary, I believe.

      • Submitted by Pauline Wahl on 11/11/2016 - 10:02 am.

        I” sorry too

        That in this election cycle women were American women got the message that they were stepped on and kicked aside.

  8. Submitted by Peggy Reinhardt on 11/13/2016 - 09:36 am.

    Paula Overby had nearly 8% of votes

    A lot of words wasted in this story until the following aside:
    (This year, Lewis won with 47.11 percent of the vote, Craig earned 45 percent, and Independence candidate Paula Overby won 7.79 percent.)

    How about mentioning what that 3rd party candidate said that resonated with nearly 8% of voters in the 2nd district? I suspect she took votes from Craig resulting in Lewis’ win.

    For one thing, in a debate on public TV only that 3rd party candidate made the distinction between having health care and having health care insurance. She proposed single payer aka Medicare for All, and I wouldn’t doubt many are ready for that.

  9. Submitted by Jim Million on 11/14/2016 - 11:24 pm.

    Nice points about Overby

    Points I did not know…obviously. The failure of nearly everyone for 8+ years to make “the distinction between having health care and having health care insurance” has been under my skin at least that long. ACA drafters and proponents purposely led this misdirection campaign, I believe, reserving “insurance” for those dastardly companies they knew so many love to hate, except when the claims are paid.

    Many states, including Minnesota, had duty to treat “care” mandates for years. Nobody needed to go without care. It has been as close (and well used) as the nearest hospital emergency room–incredibly expensive care, indeed. This issue was a key and laudable selling point of ACA–keeping the uninsured from using ERs as outpatient clinics, simply by insuring them. That won over the hospital administrators. Made sense, didn’t it? Yes, except for the tortured mechanisms to do that.

    Professional cynics and everyday doubters have believed ACA was designed to fail, defaulting into “Medicare for All.” If so, that was true political cynicism requiring continued control of the program by those who launched it. I don’t know that to be the case, but I do believe the default remedy was understood.

    Elections do have some pretty perverse consequences. Those who will now scream and rant online about coming revisions must be honest in blaming the DNC for blowing this election, not Republicans for winning it .

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 11/15/2016 - 01:21 pm.

      Duty to treat

      I wonder how long such mandates survive the impending end of Medicaid and Medicare? The again, who knows, its not as if the ER has ever been equipped for such things as chemotherapy, dialysis or dementia care. I’ve got it! A “jobs creator” even. A building boom as hospitals build their sparkling new palliative care wings to “treat” those folks the rest of us leave behind. A proposal our new Congressman can surely get behind.

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