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In a wild night in Minnesota, Jason Lewis pulls off a victory while Rick Nolan hangs on

Jason Lewis
MinnPost file photo by Steve Date
Jason Lewis worked to connect Angie Craig and Hillary Clinton, and hammered her for her support of the Affordable Care Act.

After a long, heated, and expensive campaign, Minnesota’s 2nd District will stay red: Former radio host Jason Lewis defeated businesswoman Angie Craig by just over two points, 47.11 percent to 45 percent.

Few people saw this result coming: When GOP Rep. John Kline announced his retirement last year, this seat — which encompasses the suburbs, exurbs, and some rural areas south of the Twin Cities metro — was seen as a ripe Democratic pick-up opportunity.

A recent round of redistricting and suburban growth had Democrats believing CD2’s demographics were in their favor.

In Craig — a polished candidate with a compelling personal story and an ability to seriously fundraise — they felt they had the right candidate to flip this district after 15 years of GOP control.

Meanwhile, Republicans failed to draw the Kline successor many of them wanted. Lewis got the GOP’s endorsement, and won a contested August primary, defeating Darlene Miller, a businesswoman who had GOP establishment backing, and former state Sen. John Howe.

Most political predictors had this race at a toss-up, though the Cook Political Report moved it to “lean Democratic” as soon as Lewis won the primary.

For the entire race, Craig maintained a massive cash advantage over Lewis, and touted a robust ground game that made 1.5 million total attempts to contact voters.

Lewis’ record of controversial statements in his two decades as a radio host proved perfect for attack ads, and Democratic groups dropped close to $3 million into the race. As Lewis was branded a “mini-Trump,” many Democrats believed his fortunes would sink along with the GOP nominee’s.

Clearly, as last night results showed, maybe being a mini-Trump wasn’t the worst thing after all: The 2nd District went for Trump over Hillary Clinton by about 1.5 points. Lewis and his Republican allies in Washington, who entered this race relatively late, worked to connect Craig and Clinton, and hammered her for her support of the Affordable Care Act.

This race became a late-night nail-biter, as malfunctioning voting equipment in Dakota County, where most of CD2’s votes are, delayed election returns.

Craig won Dakota County — which went for Kline by 14 points in 2014 — by just over two points. With Lewis maintaining double-digit margins in GOP strongholds like Goodhue County, ultimately, it wasn’t enough.

Nolan hangs on

Greater Minnesota’s Trump wave could have easily swept away Rep. Rick Nolan, who was in a tight, toss-up contest to begin with.

For the second time in a row, Nolan found a way to beat Stewart Mills, the Republican who challenged the 8th District Democrat again this year.

Nolan defeated Mills by 2,072 votes, earning 50.18 percent of the vote to Mills’ 49.60 percent. That’s an even closer result than 2014, when Nolan beat Mills by 1.4 percent, or 3,732 votes.

This race has the distinction of being the priciest U.S. House contest in the country: In no other race did campaigns and outside groups combine to drop more money, totaling roughly $19 million as of late October.

Rep. Rick Nolan
Rep. Rick Nolan

Nolan, the 72-year-old Democratic incumbent from Crosby, was an appealing target for Republicans, who believed that Trump’s strength in CD8 could be too much for Nolan to overcome. Mills, meanwhile, embraced Trump and his message with none of the apprehension seen by some other GOP candidates.

Yet, even as the 8th District voted for Trump by a 15-point margin — the first time a Republican has carried this part of Minnesota since before the Great Depression — Nolan held on, outperforming Clinton by 12 points.

Nolan, who served three terms in Congress in the 1970s, ran a disciplined campaign focused on issues affecting the district, like preserving entitlements like Medicare and fighting international free trade pacts; he also relentlessly touted his service to the district on trade and infrastructure.

Mills, 44, whose family founded the Mills Fleet Farm chain — and sold it this year — hammered Nolan on foreign policy, mining issues, and health care. He put close to $2 million of his own money into the campaign, and national GOP groups eyed this seat as one of few where they could play offense this cycle.

Ultimately, Mills could not translate the district’s enthusiasm for Trump into a reason to get them to send Nolan packing.

As rural areas broke for Trump by wide margins, Nolan’s turnout machine in Duluth came through — he bested his 2014 margin of victory in St. Louis County, earning 38 percent of his votes there — and he peeled off enough votes in GOP strongholds like Chisago County to deny Mills the victory.

Unexpected Greater Minnesota nailbiters

First District Rep. Tim Walz and 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson were expected to cruise to re-election on election night 2016.

Instead, they got the fights of their political careers.

Walz’s district, which encompasses southern Minnesota, and Peterson’s, which encompasses western Minnesota, lean Republican.

Rep. Tim Walz
Rep. Tim Walz

But these races were off the national and local radar this cycle, as neither incumbent attracted a strong challenger with enough campaign money or outside assistance to really make a run.

That conventional wisdom, like most conventional wisdom this year, was proven wrong on election night: An unexpected Trump wave delayed a 1.5-point Clinton win in Minnesota until Wednesday morning, and delivered the Minnesota Legislature to the GOP.

Walz and Peterson both prevailed, but by far, far narrower margins than anticipated.

In CD1, Walz again faced Jim Hagedorn, a former U.S. Treasury official whose father once represented Minnesota in Congress. In 2014, Walz dispatched Hagedorn by nine points.

Tuesday night, Walz won by 2,519 votes, or 0.75 percent. Hagedorn, who received virtually no outside help from Republican groups and got outraised by $1 million, rode Trump’s considerable coattails in CD1: Trump beat Clinton here by 14 points.

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After a strong 2014 challenge from state Sen. Torrey Westrom that came eight points short, most believed that CD7 — which leans Republican by seven points, per the Cook Report — would turn red whenever Peterson decided to retire.

His challenger this year, Air Force veteran and first-time candidate David Hughes, raised just over $13,000.

But Trump blew away past Republican performance at the top of the ticket in the 7th. Mitt Romney won here in 2012 by over nine points, earning 53.67 percent of the vote.
Trump? He beat Clinton by over 30 points, taking home 61.37 percent of the vote.

As they have every other year since 1991, though, voters in this swath of western Minnesota decided to return Peterson to Congress. He beat Hughes by four points — his closest margin of victory since his first re-election campaign in 1992.

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Comments (2)

Craig Support?

Did the DFL special teams coaches really help the Craig campaign with special tools required here?

I spoke with the Team Craig head guy Monday, to ask how things were going and if they had anything special planned for my old river town, offering to help in some practical way on a street corner, perhaps. He was pretty vague in answering, simply telling me he didn't think so, but really wasn't sure what the local organization had planned. Frankly, that quietly astonished me...the fact her #1 was very vague and casual about Monday and Tuesday. What were Party leaders considering with respect to their apparently poor vision of this re-constructed District?

I've stated in previous comments that I view Lewis as "a jerk." I know there must be thousands of others far ahead of me on that point. Were the DFL big shots so focused on scoring touchdown runs elsewhere, that they left CD2 to a field goal kicker? Unbelievable...absolutely lousy coaching somewhere there.

Nolan vs. Mills

There is no way I would have bet that Nolan would hang on in a weak year for the top of the ticket (or a year when Peterson won by only 4 points).

Either Nolan is an excellent campaigner who the Dems should try to emulate, or Mills just isn't a good candidate.