Why control of the U.S. House could hinge on Minnesota in 2018

REUTERS/Aaron Bernstein
With Republicans commanding a 23-seat majority in the U.S. House, and Democrats aiming to chip away, or even reverse, that total, having a slate of five competitive races in one state is a big deal.

From north to south, woods to prairie, the vast majority of the state of Minnesota will be hotly contested political turf in the 2018 election cycle.

Of the state’s eight U.S. House seats, five are among the handful of races considered legitimately competitive — and a few even rank as top national priorities for both parties.

It’s not a stretch to say that control of the House could be decided in the North Star State: with Republicans commanding a 23-seat majority, and Democrats aiming to chip away, or even reverse, that total, having a slate of five competitive races in one state is a big deal.

How much progress Democrats make, the conventional wisdom goes, depends on President Donald Trump. Midterm elections are often a referendum on the party in power, and if the president continues to be historically unpopular through next year, the ballot box returns could be very bad for the congressional GOP. But in Minnesota’s three largely rural, Democrat-held districts, the president proved enormously popular on election day 2016 – if that sentiment endures, it could provide a ceiling to Democratic gains.

For both sides, the prospect of flipping seats has sparked a flurry of early activity for 2018, as competitive races have crowded with candidates vying to head to Washington. In the open-seat 1st Congressional District alone, eight DFL candidates have filed to run.

Through these candidates’ political messaging, Minnesota’s getting an early feel for what the 2018 campaign will look like, and what issues — and looming political figures  — will decide it.

The state of play

The congressional battle map in Minnesota is roughly this: Democrats are playing offense in the Twin Cities suburbs, and the GOP is on the offensive in rural Minnesota.

Democrats believe that their path back to power runs through affluent, well-educated suburban districts that preferred Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. The 3rd District is one of those places, and its representative, Erik Paulsen, is a top target for Democrats. Paulsen is one of 23 House Republicans from districts that Clinton won.

Minnesota’s 2nd District slightly preferred Trump, but incumbent Rep. Jason Lewis looks vulnerable to Democrats. The district, which comprises the suburbs and rural areas south of the metro area, has grown diverse and bluer in recent years, and Democrats believe that could give them the advantage in an election where the political climate is in their favor.

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Meanwhile, Republicans are liking their chances in Minnesota’s three rural districts, no matter how bad things could get for the president. Northeast Minnesota’s 8th District, which had been increasingly trending red, preferred Trump by a 15-point margin in 2016. DFL Rep. Rick Nolan, who’s running for another term, has been a top GOP target every cycle, and will be again.

Republicans think their best pickup opportunity could be southern Minnesota’s 1st District seat, which Rep. Tim Walz is vacating to run for governor. CD1 voters preferred Trump by 15 points, and the GOP has increasingly taken over the region’s seats in the state legislature. Republicans believe that a Democrat without an incumbency advantage will face an uphill climb here.

As for 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson — who has the most conservative district of any House Democrat —  he has been an elusive target for the GOP, winning comfortably in this western Minnesota district since 1990. But CD7 went for Trump by remarkable 30 points, buoying an first-time GOP challenger to within five points of Peterson in 2016.

Being ‘for’ something

For Democrats to have a chance at increasing their share of the House, they’ll need to flip those suburban metro seats while maintaining their hold on rural Minnesota. Courting such different constituencies, DFL candidates are spending the early stages of the campaign trying out very different strategies in different parts of the state.

For Dan Feehan, who is seeking the DFL endorsement in the 1st District, the path to keeping the seat blue is by focusing intensely on the district’s issues — health care, agriculture — and telling voters what Democrats are for, not just against. And that includes Trump.

The first-time candidate, who previously was as a Pentagon official under Barack Obama and served in the Iraq War, said Democrats are at a moment of introspection, but said the party’s core message needs to be focused on economic populism and inclusivity.

“Health care is at the forefront of people’s minds, future economic opportunities, the future of the farming industry is on people’s minds,” he said. “This district is a lot more purple than it lets on. The plan and strategy is to engage with anyone… this is not a story of things I’m against.”

Would he not be talking much about Trump on the campaign trail, then? “You don’t have that wrong,” Feehan chucked. “If I’m going to talk about our president, it’s to talk about the consequences of Donald Trump.”

CD3, meanwhile, has emerged as a hotbed of grassroots anti-Trump activism thanks to groups like Indivisible. One of the four candidates vying for the DFL endorsement, former comedy writer Brian Santa Maria, is making opposition to Trump a key element of his platform. On his website’s issues section, Trump is listed first. “The most important thing a congressman can do,” it reads, “is fire Trump.”

Running on economic issues — he mentioned the Democrats’ newly-minted Better Deal platform — is moot, Santa Maria told MinnPost, if Trump remains in office. “We’ve got a guy in the White House who is, from a policy standpoint, he won’t sign the legislation, but if we go past that, it’s a guy who doesn’t respect the system we are trying to work within. You’ve got to get rid of him before you make any progress.” Santa Maria adds, however, that he’s spending most of his time on the campaign trail talking about health care and the economy.

Though Democrats tried and failed to tie Paulsen and other Republicans to Trump in 2016, Santa Maria believes that it will be much easier to make that connection next year, when Trump has produced real policy outcomes, and Democrats can point to instances of Paulsen voting to advance Trump’s agenda. (His website hits Paulsen for doing nothing to check Trump. “Our do-nothing representative is complicit with a traitor,” he argues.)

“2018 is not 2016,” he said. “A country that’s seen two years of Donald Trump is different than a country that has imagined four years of Donald Trump. The case will be made for progressive politics.”

Republicans betting on rural Trump country

Republicans are betting that two years of a Trump presidency won’t do much to hurt their chances with voters in places that strongly supported him in 2016.

Jim Hagedorn, a Republican running for the 1st District seat, said that his pitch to voters is to send him to Congress as a Republican “reinforcement” to help make progress on the party’s agenda.

“People that supported President Trump in the last election are not upset in the least with him,” Hagedorn claims. “If anything, they’re disappointed in Washington, disappointed with the people on the Republican side of the aisle who’ve been dragging their feet on making big change.”

Hagedorn, who is making his third bid for the 1st District seat, came within 3,000 votes of defeating Walz in 2016. On some issues, such as refugee resettlement, he staked out a Trump-like position before Trump himself did.

CD1 voters, he said, still want the kind of change that Trump ran on. “This is the best takeover opportunity in the country for the Republican Party.”

In suburbia, however, it’s safe to say that voters aren’t craving the change Trump promised. In CD3, they preferred Clinton by a nine-point margin. Paulsen says he did not vote for Trump — instead writing in Sen. Marco Rubio — and generally takes pains to avoid discussing the president.

Lewis’ district went for Trump, but by a narrow, one-point margin. He, too, does not go out of his way to say much about the president, good or bad — though he was the only Minnesota member of Congress to appear at the White House ceremony to celebrate the passage of the House’s health care bill.

Darin Broton, a DFL consultant, says the GOP incumbent strategy of generally avoiding Trump could pay off. “Because Donald Trump’s personal brand is so much different than the Erik Paulsen brand, I think most voters come to the conclusion of, yeah, I may not like Donald Trump, but I also know Erik Paulsen or Jason Lewis, they’re not really one in the same.”

Striking a balance

Democrats are continuing to develop their national economic message, dubbed A Better Deal, which they introduced last month. The idea is to give something positive for candidates to run on instead of just hammering Trump — but several Minnesota candidates will likely strike some balance.

Dean Phillips, considered a frontrunner for the DFL endorsement in CD3, told MinnPost after entering the race in May that voters know Trump and Paulsen are different. He did highlight policy similarities between the two: “Recent weeks and months have made it clear he votes along with Donald Trump,” Phillips said.

DFL candidate Angie Craig, who tried hard to link Lewis to Trump in 2016, tweeted out in July that Lewis is taking “cues” from Trump on health care. Phillips’ and Craig’s statements suggest that if Democrats do try to link Republican incumbents to the president, it’ll be over policy, not personality or scandal.

If the 2018 election is a referendum on Trump, Broton says, it should be good news for Democrats, even in Trump-leaning areas. He cited the outcome of a special election for the Iowa state legislature this week, in which a Democratic candidate defeated a Republican in a heavily Republican, rural district.

“There’s a lot of hope and optimism out there that the party can continue to win in rural districts,” he said. “The key lesson for Democrats in all this: you can’t be so rigid about a personal philosophy and ideology in these rural areas, and the diversity of thought and opinion is what will make the party successful.”

But Republicans are skeptical: John Rouleau, of the GOP-aligned Minnesota Jobs Coalition, touted Minnesota’s independent streak at the ballot box.

“When we see waves, it doesn’t necessarily impact Minnesota in the way it impacts a lot of other places,” he said. “Frankly, it’s kind of lazy messaging in a lot of these cases… I think if the Democrats in the metro plan to nationalize this election, if they plan to make this some sort of referendum on the president, they tried that in 2016.”

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