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Trumpless Zone: Erik Paulsen runs on tax reform, consensus building — and away from his party’s presidential nominee

At a rally in Plymouth, the Third District incumbent was joined by Speaker Paul Ryan, who lauded Paulsen’s ideas and ability to get things done. Neither mentioned the T word.

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, center, joined NRCC Chair and Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, left, and Rep. Erik Paulsen for a rally on Wednesday in Plymouth.
MinnPost photo by Sam Brodey

In another dimension, in another version of this crazy election, Paul Ryan isn’t even in Plymouth, Minnesota.

But it’s 2016 in America, and Donald Trump is the Republican Party’s nominee for president, so here is the Speaker of the House, addressing a crowd of well-dressed suburbanites in a Plymouth parking lot, helping Rep. Erik Paulsen fend off the first serious challenger to his 3rd District congressional seat since he was first elected in 2008.

Trump is deeply unpopular in Paulsen’s suburban west metro district, as he is in similar swaths of affluent, educated America. Democrats, thinking they could exploit that sentiment to make a serious run at him, recruited state Sen. Terri Bonoff to challenge. Polling shows Clinton running far ahead of Trump here.

In a brief appearance on Wednesday evening, Ryan mentioned neither Trump, nor Hillary Clinton. Holding up the pamphlet for “A Better Way” — his recently rolled-out agenda for the House GOP — like a sacred text, Ryan made the case for Paulsen and for Republican ideas in Washington.

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“Erik Paulsen is the workhorse of all workhorses in Congress,” the Speaker said, mentioning that Paulsen is the “one reason” why the medical device tax — a huge issue here — was suspended by Congress last year.

If you were in the crowd, you might be forgiven for wondering if there was a presidential election going on at all. That is by design: Paulsen — who said he will not support Trump — is dealing with the GOP nominee by pretending he doesn’t exist, and is instead running on a record he touts as bipartisan and positive.

Bonoff’s task is to connect Paulsen to Trump, and leverage the national attention that this race has commanded to make a case Democrats here have been itching to make for years: that Paulsen is more conservative than he lets on.

With two very clear strategies at work, has either of them put the race on their terms ahead of Election Day?

How we got here

Paulsen, a former state legislator from Eden Prairie, has consistently survived in this district — one that has voted for Democrats and Republicans somewhat evenly over the years — and made it look easy.

After winning the competitive 2008 race that sent him to Washington, Paulsen has soundly won re-election since, even as his constituents voted for Barack Obama and for Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

His recipe for success has been the example of his mentor, former Rep. Jim Ramstad, who held this seat for nearly two decades. Ramstad, Paulsen said, valued bipartisan cooperation and effective constituent service as keys to being a good congressman.

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Paulsen — as cautious a political operator as they come — has worked with Democrats to deliver results on important but non-controversial issues like combating sex trafficking. He has branded himself as the “math guy,” and embraces the role of the wonky legislator working on arcane tweaks to tax and health care policy.

It is an approach that has worked in this district, the most educated and affluent district in Minnesota, which is home to a burgeoning medical technology sector and major companies like Cargill and General Mills.

If someone like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — Paulsen’s first choice — was the nominee, he would not be running against Bonoff. But Democrats recruited the Minnetonka native, who has served in the state Senate since 2005, late in the game, when it became clear Trump would win the GOP nomination. The race immediately became one of a handful of U.S. House races watched nationally.

Bonoff, who embraces the label of the pro-business Democrat, is an interesting adversary for Paulsen. In her career, she’s run a similar political playbook: her campaign slogan for this race and her past races is “Uniting the Middle,” and she won re-election to the Senate with Republican support. (Her team recalls voters asking in the past why she is not a Republican.)

Democrats’ strategy early on was clear: relentlessly drill into voters’ minds that Paulsen, by not forcefully condemning Trump, backed the nominee’s politics and behavior.

Major outside groups, like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, poured millions of dollars worth of TV ads — $3.2 million as of late October — slamming Paulsen.

They have also attempted to tie Paulsen and Trump’s positions together, highlighting that both favor restricting abortion access and oppose gun control.

Trump attacks fall flat

As Democrats stuck with that strategy through the summer and fall, however, Paulsen appeared to be holding out, with Trump attacks failing to stick.

The national press had held up CD3 as a potential bellwether district: if Bonoff could sink Paulsen, it would portend a Democratic wave that could return them to control of the House.

By September, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank said Democrats had failed to make Trump an albatross down the ticket.

In September, House Majority PAC, backed by Nancy Pelosi, canceled some ad buys in the district, leading Republicans to crow that Bonoff was toast. (Her team maintains the race has been competitive since the beginning, and this was a strategic decision.)

But most people watching this race closely believed Paulsen had the upper hand, and had successfully put the race on his terms.

Paulsen and his GOP allies have spent over $5 million on the race, working for months to brand Bonoff as a tax-and-spend liberal.

Then, of course, came the Access Hollywood tapes. Paulsen, who had waffled for months on whether he’d support Trump, issued a short statement saying he could not back the nominee.

Though it became harder to link him to Trump, the attention on this race remained. Pelosi’s House Majority PAC reserved a new $800,000 in Paulsen attack ads for the home stretch of the campaign, and Bonoff became one of the first Democratic candidates to receive a video endorsement from President Obama.

Public polling of this race has been limited: the KSTP/SurveyUSA poll in October had Paulsen up 11 points on Bonoff, but both camps insist it is much closer than that. Bonoff called the race a dead heat.

The national spotlight, Bonoff told MinnPost, lets them drive home the message they wanted all along: that Paulsen is too conservative for this moderate district.

“He’s on the wrong side of history on too many votes by voting with the extreme right wing of his party,” Bonoff said, citing votes against gun control and Planned Parenthood, for example.

To her and many Democrats here, those stances should be obvious deal-breakers in CD3. They argue that Paulsen, far from having wide bipartisan appeal, has simply gotten a pass because he has drawn weaker opponents.

Though she distanced her campaign from the Trump attacks of the DCCC, Bonoff acknowledged that for her to succeed, voters will need to have the GOP nominee on their minds in the voting booth.

Trump’s rise, she said, feels like “dark times in our world’s history where a dictator has come to power and only allowed to do that because people didn’t stand up. I felt that we were in that kind of situation and Erik Paulsen not standing up and telling his community that this guy shouldn’t be elected got me into the race.”

Bonoff’s spokesman, Sean Oyaas, said that Paulsen’s dance with Trump was “a reflection of his legislative career of not standing up to his party on issues that matter,” adding that it has been a way to “shine a light on Paulsen’s record.”

‘They know who I am’

If voters are thinking about Trump when they make their decision, Bonoff will have put the race on her terms.

If you ask Paulsen, though, CD3 voters don’t really care much about the top of the ticket. “If I’m going door-to-door, I don’t hear anything about the presidential race,” Paulsen said, looking relaxed in a brown fleece with the logo of his annual ice fishing fundraiser.

“They’ll roll their eyes and they’ll be frustrated about it, because nobody is happy with either candidate. But nobody asks me what I think about, or what are you going to do. I haven’t even probably had one question on it at all.”

Paulsen says he decided to denounce Trump after the tapes were released because they made clear there was nothing Trump could do to earn his support. He said he held out, even as Trump made comments attacking a Mexican-American federal judge and questioning Sen. John McCain’s heroics in the Vietnam War, in hopes that Trump could eventually right the ship.

Instead of the presidential race, Paulsen says that voters are focusing on health care, citing rising Obamacare premiums, and countered that Bonoff is running a divisive campaign based on wedge issues. Her criticism of Paulsen over gun control and same-sex marriage, the Republican says, are backward-looking, and that these issues have mostly been settled.

Paulsen knows that his path to victory relies on many Clinton voters splitting their tickets and selecting him down-ballot. He cited past elections when CD3 voters went with both Obama and him. In 2012, though, Obama won this district by less than one percent. Clinton, some say, could win by 10 or more points here — that’s a lot of ticket-splitting.

“We have Hillary and Paulsen lawn signs in some yards,” Paulsen said, adding that those people say “just get some stuff done and keep working.”

“Folks just want someone that’s going to work to get stuff done,” he said. “They know who I am, they know my brand, and regardless of who’s elected president they want people who are going to be there that are going to be thoughtful, who are going to work across the aisle on important issues that matter.”

Party of ideas

On Wednesday evening, that’s exactly what Paul Ryan told the crowd rallying for Paulsen in Plymouth. Despite the stuff on Twitter and TV, Ryan said, “there are real issues at stake. There are real ideas that are being debated… Know that those of us in Congress, people like Erik Paulsen and the rest of us, we’re running on an agenda of ideas with all Republicans.”

Ryan, who chaired the Ways and Means Committee that Paulsen sits on before rising to Speaker, went down the laundry list of his favorite topics: poverty, welfare reform, health care reform, cutting down government regulation.

The modestly sized crowd — populated with the fleece-wearing young professionals and suburban parents who love the idea of a Ryan presidency — ate it up. “Do you know,” Ryan asked them, “who is one of the architects who have come up with these ideas, who pushed the Republican Party to be a party of ideas — do you know who that person is? It’s Erik Paulsen!”

No emails, no tapes, no mention of the insults and controversies that have driven this unprecedented presidential campaign. It was a glimpse into the kind of campaign that many Republicans wished they could be running nationally — and the one Paulsen is trying to run now.

“We have a plan to get this country back on track,” Ryan said. “The person at the seat of the table, helping lead the charge, is your congressman!”

The crowd cheered loudly as Paulsen took the stage to join Ryan. As he bounded up the steps, a man in the crowd held high a big, blue Trump-Pence sign.