A year ago this week, things were looking bad for the Republican Congress’ effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
Though Republicans had promised for seven years to get rid of the law they dubbed Obamacare, none of them seemed to like the bill they wrote to do it, called the American Health Care Act. Many conservative and moderate Republicans were criticizing the bill, and polling for the legislation tanked in the face of successful opposition from Democratic politicians and the liberal grassroots. Republican lawmakers facing tough elections in swing districts were under immense pressure to vote against the AHCA — or at least keep a low profile if they planned to vote for it.
Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District is about as swingy as they come, and just months after the 2016 election, it was already rated as one of the most competitive U.S. House contests for the 2018 midterms. You might have expected the 2nd District’s brand-new congressman, Republican Rep. Jason Lewis, to be cautious, and averse to sticking his neck out on a hot-button issue with career-ending potential.
Yet Lewis was on the floor of the House on March 24 — they day of the scheduled vote — railing against Obamacare and urging his colleagues to do the “right thing” by dismantling it, something he’d been saying for weeks. Ultimately, Lewis was one of the last speakers to take to the House podium that day: he spoke minutes before Speaker Paul Ryan decided to pull the bill because it didn’t have enough votes to pass.
That episode is emblematic of the approach that Lewis, a former pundit on right-wing talk radio, has taken to Congress in his first year on the job. Instead of tacking to the center on key issues or keeping a low profile, as some vulnerable lawmakers faced with a difficult election might, Lewis has been an outspoken advocate for conservative policy priorities like gutting the ACA, slashing taxes and undoing scores of federal regulations.
As the 2018 campaign heats up and Lewis heads toward November with a big target on his back, he’s hoping that 2nd District voters will reward him with a second term for being Jason Lewis — even if they don’t always agree with him.
Coming in hot
In his first year in office, Lewis has been a vocal cheerleader not just for Obamacare repeal, but for the GOP’s bill to slash tax rates and rework the U.S. tax code, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump last December and will be a central element of Republicans’ pitch to voters this fall.
Beyond that, Lewis has put items of conservative orthodoxy, like making recipients of federal poverty assistance meet work requirements, high on his agenda, as well as advocating for spending cuts in order to tackle the federal government’s $20 trillion debt.
It was that fiscal hawkishness that prompted Lewis to vote against the two-year budget deal negotiated by Republicans and Democrats, which blew austerity-era caps off defense and social spending. On that vote, Lewis joined 67 of his House Republican colleagues, many of them members of the House Freedom Caucus, the hard-right group of lawmakers who represent some of the deepest-red districts in the country.
Some thought Lewis might join the Freedom Caucus when he arrived in Congress, and early in the 2016 campaign, candidate Lewis said he might. He ultimately did not, but during his freshman year on Capitol Hill, Lewis has frequently operated like someone who represents a district redder than Minnesota’s 2nd.
The district, which encompasses suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas south of the Twin Cities metro and along the border with Wisconsin, is hard to categorize politically, but it’s far from a reliably Republican seat. Lewis won his 2016 contest over Craig by about 1.5 percentage points, with a third-party candidate, Paula Overby, pulling in 8 percent of the vote. Trump won the district by one point, but in 2012, Barack Obama narrowly carried it.
On the congressional level, former Rep. John Kline, a Republican, represented CD2 for seven terms. But the plurality of CD2 voters chose to send former Sen. Al Franken to Congress in 2014, and a 30-point majority voted to grant Sen. Amy Klobuchar a second term in 2012.
According to the Cook Report’s Partisan Voter Index, which calculates the partisan leanings of House districts, CD2 prefers Republicans by an average of two points, making it the 225th most Republican U.S. House district in the country. (There are currently 238 Republican members of the House.)
Heading into the November midterms, Lewis is widely recognized as having one of the toughest re-election battles of any House Republican. In a recent assessment of races by the Washington Post, only one Republican incumbent — Rep. Barbara Comstock, who represents D.C.’s Virginia suburbs — was judged to have a tougher race than Lewis. Notably, Comstock voted against the AHCA and has worked hard to distance herself from Trump.
‘Sincerity goes a long way’
Sitting with MinnPost on Tuesday in the House Members’ Dining Room, Lewis defended his approach, and lamented the fact that some of his House colleagues have not acted similarly.
“I said I was going to go reform health care and change the ACA for something toward the better,” Lewis said. “I stuck my neck out in a swing district, and what I found was, there were a lot of people who wouldn’t. I was a little surprised by that. But that’s what I ran on.”
“I do think that there is an obsession with re-election in this town,” Lewis continued. “Sometimes that can get the best of even good people. But I didn’t want to do that. I’m not going to do that.”
Lewis’ belief is that being clear and unambiguous about his policy stances will position him well for the election, and that voters will reward his authenticity even if they disagree.
“Sincerity goes a long way,” he said. “It’s the difference between those members that are constantly dictated by the polls, and people who just say, I came here to do something, I’m going to do it. … I just think having convictions is a real asset in politics.”
Minnesota Republican operatives, like David FitzSimmons, can see that strategy paying off for Lewis in November. “I think he’s impressed a lot of people,” said FitzSimmons, who formerly served as chief of staff for Rep. Tom Emmer and currently is managing the campaign of James Hagedorn, who is running for Congress in Minnesota’s 1st District.
“Lewis is really showing himself to be someone that says where he’s at, believes it, defends it, and isn’t afraid to communicate it,” he said. “I think, in particular, Minnesotans have proven themselves to be respectful of, and even support, people with very known and strong views, even when those sometimes seem to cut in different directions.”
Democrats can’t wait to take on Lewis
Lewis’ would-be Democratic opponents — Angie Craig, who lost to Lewis in 2016, and Jeff Erdmann, a Rosemount high school teacher — disagree, and plan to make Lewis’ stances on health care, taxes, and other issues widely known to 2nd District voters, because they believe they’ll reject them on Election Day.
Craig argued that Lewis is out of touch with CD2.
“He’s far too conservative for this district. He may as well have gone ahead and joined the Freedom Caucus, because he’s been voting with them,” she told MinnPost. “I believe Jason has gone to Congress and been every bit as bad for the district as we thought he’d be.”
“Frankly that’s why he’s hiding from his constituents,” Craig said, referencing the fact that Lewis has not done a town hall-style meeting in person, in which anyone can ask a question of the congressman. “They know he’s out of touch, and he doesn’t want to face them.” (On March 14, Lewis’ Twitter account announced he held his 15th “telephone town hall,” in which constituents may ask questions of the congressman and listen to his answers.)
Craig, a former executive at medical tech firm St. Jude Medical who oversaw the company’s political contributions, plans to focus on Lewis’ stances and votes on health care, taxes, and education on the campaign trail.
The Erdmann campaign, running in the populist-progressive style championed by Bernie Sanders, said in a statement that Lewis has “positioned himself with Wall Street and the donor class at the expense of Working Americans. With the massive income inequality this country is experiencing, giving Wall Street greater freedom to operate for their own interests and negating the lessons learned from the financial collapse of past Republican administrations is beyond out of touch.”
One person Democrats did not talk much about was Trump. In 2016, outside Democratic groups spent over $3 million on this race, much of that on ads trying to link Lewis with the controversial presidential nominee. The strategy didn’t turn out great in CD2, where more voters preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton.
National Democratic groups, like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works on House campaigns, have so far emphasized Lewis’ votes on health care and taxes in their messaging against him.
Though the president has likely lost ground in CD2, Lewis has not distanced himself from the White House. Speaking with MinnPost, Lewis offered a version of a line he’s used before: “Would I do things the same way the president has done them? No, probably not. Do I agree with the general direction of his policies? You bet I do.”
He also cast doubt on Democrats bringing the specter of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia — and the possibility of it being grounds for impeachment if Democrats take back the House — into the elections.
“The only thing they seem to think he’s done is this whole collusion business which, after 14 months, they’ve yet to find any evidence on,” Lewis said of Democrats, before adding that Mueller should finish his investigation.
“It’s just that his style is different,” Lewis said about Trump. “That’s what’s got people up in arms.”
‘I’d rather be out there fighting’
Lewis’ remark about Trump could apply to Lewis himself. The former talk-radio bomb-thrower relishes a good fight, but in Congress, he’s also seemed to delight in defying expectations. He animatedly told MinnPost about his work with Democrats on legislation about criminal justice reform — he sharply disagrees with “tough-on-crime” Republicans like Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions on this topic — as well as drone regulation and vocational training.
“Pundits ought to be purists,” Lewis said. “That’s great. Lay down a philosophy about what you think is the best governance.” But now, in Congress, Lewis said he has a “responsibility to govern.”
Some observers have noticed that shift.
“I guess he’s been the same Jason Lewis, only sort of on downers,” said Steven Schier, professor of politics at Carleton College. “He views himself as more of a free agent instead of a party regular. He’s working with Democrats. I think that free agent angle may help him when he’s running for re-election.”
Craig argues that voters will see through Lewis’ positioning as an authentic, likable independent. “I think voters are going to stand up and say, ‘I don’t care what we think of you, you’re not going to vote against Social Security and Medicare.’”
Though Democrats will be on the defensive in the 1st and 8th Congressional Districts, which they will try to keep blue despite losing established incumbents, the 2nd is perhaps their best pick-up opportunity in the state. Craig said said she is very optimistic about Democrats’ chances to win here in the fall.
“There’s no doubt it’s going to be a hard race,” FitzSimmons says. “It’s going to be hotly contested. But I think Lewis has set himself up well.”
Lewis is well aware of the challenges ahead of him. Coming off an election in which his fundraising fell below expectations, Lewis raised more money in 2017, an off-year, than he did the entire 2016 cycle. A pundit who came up in the 1980s and 1990s who watched presidents like Bill Clinton get slammed in their first midterms, Lewis is also aware that historical trends are not in his party’s favor this November.
“Of course it’s going to be tough,” Lewis said. But he insisted he isn’t going to change a thing about his approach: “If you go out there and give it your all, and say the things you believe in and defend your philosophy and you lose, so be it,” he said.
“But if you lose anyway in a blue wave, and you didn’t go out and said the things you believe, how crummy would you feel? I’m going to do this on my terms. I’d rather be out there fighting.”