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2018 is shaping up to be a banner year in Minnesota politics — or a nightmare

There’s the governor’s race and a Senate race, sure. But five of Minnesota’s U.S. House races might be competitive enough to attract big spending from national groups.

The combination of big-ticket open-seat races and the sheer number of competitive U.S. House races that looms in 2018, then, promises to make it the hottest election cycle in a long time.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley

If you spent any time near a TV, or any place that gets mail, in the Twin Cities or Duluth media markets, your 2016 was probably filled with ominous political attack ads and countless mailers slamming Rep. So-and-So for being a terrible person.

2017 should be a welcome breather from electoral politics: this year, voters in Minneapolis and St. Paul will select their mayors, and more local-level elections will occur across the state. That’s about it.

Enjoy this respite, because 2018 promises a critical mass of campaigning that could be a high (or low) point of political mudslinging in Minnesota. That’s thanks to a confluence of factors: several open seats in key races, a Trump-fueled tide in rural Minnesota that’s making some historically blue seats look more appealing to the GOP, and the dismantling of campaign finance limits that’s washed the state in a flood of outside cash and attack ads.

A quick look at what’s on the menu for 2018: at the top, an open-seat race for the Minnesota governorship, then a U.S. Senate election, and five nationally-watched U.S. House contests. Add in some competitive Minnesota House races, and you have the makings of a historically chaotic, frenetic year of politics in the North Star State.

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That schedule makes even the hardest-fought cycles from the recent past look quaint. In 2014, Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken won contested elections, but only one House member, 8th District Rep. Rick Nolan, was truly on the hot seat.

In 2016, the presidential race barely came to Minnesota’s doorstep. While there were three high-profile U.S. House races, there were no big statewide contests.

The combination of big-ticket open-seat races and the sheer number of competitive U.S. House races that looms in 2018, then, promises to make it the hottest election cycle in a long time.

The governor’s race will be of special interest, and a magnet for in-state and national cash, as the DFL attempts to deny the GOP unified control of Minnesota government. The shadow of redistricting looms large on this contest, too. Challengers are beginning to crowd the DFL and Republican sides, ensuring that endorsement and primary battles will be lengthy, and expensive.

More than half of Minnesota House districts look competitive

Beyond that, five of eight Congressional seats in Minnesota will be priorities for the national Democratic and Republican parties in 2018 — a remarkable occurrence.

The same districts that were heavily contested in 2016 will feature prominently again next year.

Jason Lewis
MinnPost photo by Steve Date
Jason Lewis

In the suburban and exurban 2nd and 3rd Districts, Democrats are looking to knock off incumbent Republicans, believing that a historically unpopular Republican president will make them vulnerable.

Freshman Rep. Jason Lewis of the 2nd District is a top target for Democrats, and could face a repeat challenge from deep-pocketed Democrat Angie Craig. Lewis was named an early target by the Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; its GOP counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee, is making Lewis’ defense a priority.

(Perhaps adding some juice to D.C. partisans’ Minnesota ambitions: 6th District Rep. Tom Emmer is deputy chair at the NRCC this cycle, while 4th District Rep. Betty McCollum is the DCCC’s point person for the Midwest region.)

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Democrats were disappointed with their showing against 3rd District Rep. Erik Paulsen in 2016, but they will likely run a high-quality, well-funded challenger again. Dean Phillips, a wealthy entrepreneur, is reportedly being recruited to run against Paulsen.

Of note: both Lewis and Paulsen voted for the Republicans’ doomed repeal and replacement of Obamacare in their respective House committees. Metro TV watchers should expect to hear that over and over in advertisements, perhaps as soon as this summer.

Rep. Erik Paulsen
Rep. Erik Paulsen

Democrats are expected to play offense in CD2 and CD3, but they will be playing defense in Minnesota’s three most rural districts, all of which Trump won handily in 2016, and all of which are represented by Democrats.

As always, Nolan — if he does not run for governor — will be a top target for national Republicans. Stewart Mills’ repeat challenge to Nolan in 2016 had the second highest total spending, campaigns and outside groups combined, of any U.S. House race in the country.

Southern Minnesota’s 1st District was already interesting: incumbent Democratic Rep. Tim Walz narrowly won a sixth term in 2016 when the Trump wave — a 15-point spread in CD1 — fueled his underfunded GOP opponent, Jim Hagedorn. Then Walz announced a run for governor, making this Republican-leaning seat a true toss-up, and a priority for both parties. 

Even 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson, first elected in 1990, nearly got swept away by the Trump wave last year. He beat a political novice, Dave Hughes, by just four points, as Trump took his district by 30 points. The conservative Democrat has been the NRCC’s most elusive target, and Trump’s popularity in his district should invigorate their efforts to unseat him — should Peterson decide to run again.

U.S. Senate race an afterthought, for now

The three competitive congressional races in 2016 attracted record-breaking amounts of outside spending. Outside groups, from the DCCC and NRCC to PACs aligned with Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, combined to drop close to $30 million on the contests in districts two, three and eight.

The campaigns themselves also spent lots of cash, particularly Paulsen, whose campaign parted with over $5 million, and Craig, who spent over $4 million.

Political donors in Minnesota will be courted aggressively for cash for 2018 House campaigns, with both sides claiming that control of the chamber could hang in the balance.

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Sen. Amy Klobuchar
Sen. Amy Klobuchar

Unusually, it might be the contest for U.S. Senate that is put on the back-burner. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who was in the mix for the gubernatorial race, decided to pursue a third term in the Senate.

Minnesota political insiders on both sides concede that Klobuchar is an opponent that few people, Republican or Democrat, want to face. Most high-profile Republicans should be more attracted to the gubernatorial race, meaning that Klobuchar could face a relatively untested political opponent in 2018, like she did in 2012, when she defeated Kurt Bills by 35 points.

With Republicans on the offensive against 10 incumbent Democratic senators in states Trump won, Klobuchar is likely not a priority for the GOP.

You can count on hard-fought campaigns unfolding all across Minnesota, and you can expect it to get going soon: as early as summer of 2015, 2016 attack ads were running in Minneapolis.