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.
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 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.