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There are new recordings from Jason Lewis’ lightning-rod past as a talk radio host. Will it matter this time?

The recordings made national news, but they struck familiar chords for Minnesotans who watched Lewis’ 2016 election.

Rep. Jason Lewis’ history as a conservative bomb-thrower is back on the air, and to a far larger audience.
MinnPost file photo by Steve Date

It’s a story that might sound familiar to Minnesotans: Jason Lewis, the one-time conservative talk radio firebrand, is facing intense criticism for his past comments about race and women — and he’s unapologetically defending himself.

In 2016, after Lewis jumped into the Republican primary for Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District, his talk radio past became a major issue when released recordings of his syndicated show aired Lewis’ claims that young women were “non-thinking” and that Hurricane Katrina victims are a “bunch of whiners.”

Those statements got lots of attention in Minnesota, and despite the efforts of his Democratic and Republican rivals alike to get him to renounce them or even get out of the race, Lewis pressed ahead without apology. He went on to win the GOP primary and the general election over Democrat Angie Craig in November.

But the now-freshman congressman’s history as a conservative bomb-thrower is back on the air, and to a far larger audience: over the past week, CNN released new audio of Lewis from his talk radio days. In these segments, Lewis lamented not being able to call women “sluts” anymore, cautioned that large gatherings of black Americans caused trouble, and argued that victimization of whites by black criminals was pervasive, among other things.

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In Washington and in the national press, these comments generated dozens of headlines in outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post, not to mention tens of thousands of outraged tweets. Lewis was stalked in the U.S. Capitol by TV reporters covering his comments like a breaking scandal; his remarks even warranted a public rebuke from Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader.

Back in Minnesota, the story may have drawn attention and outrage, but it was treated like a second installment of Lewis’ 2016 talk radio episode. The congressman’s Democratic foes sounded shocked, but not surprised, and capitalized on them to build a broader narrative about Lewis’ views ahead of a rematch with Craig — one that is expected to be one of the hardest-fought and most expensive U.S. House races in the country.

Lewis himself, meanwhile, is returning to a familiar playbook for responding to outrage over his talk radio past: that these remarks are being advanced by political enemies who are taking them out of context. And this time around, Lewis says, he has a record in Congress to stand on as he defends himself.

New comments, same themes

The audio released by CNN comes from 15 hours of recordings of the Jason Lewis Show, which ran from 2009 to 2014. The news network’s so-called K-FILE unit, which specializes in digging up old information about political figures, says it got the audio from Michael Brodkorb, a MinnPost contributor and former GOP political operative.

Though Lewis’ claims in these segments were previously unreported, they explore similar themes as his most controversial claims highlighted in 2016 — particularly the political motivations of young women voters, contemporary attitudes about sexual activity, and perceived entitlement among minority populations.

Of the newly-released recordings, what got perhaps the most attention was a March 2012 segment in which Lewis asked, “can we call anybody a slut?”

“It used to be that women were held to a little bit of a higher standard,” Lewis said. “We required modesty from women. Now, are we beyond those days where a woman can behave as a slut, but you can’t call her a slut?”

Speaking on Rush Limbaugh’s then-recent statement that contraception activist Sandra Fluke was a “slut,” Lewis said, “Limbaugh’s reasoning was, look, if you’re demanding that the taxpayers pay for your contraception, you must use a lot of them and therefore, ergo, you’re very sexually active and in the old days, what we used to call people who were in college or even graduate school who were sexually active, we called them sluts.”

Those remarks, widely derided in the past week as misogynistic, bear similarities to some of the Lewis comments that were most publicized during the 2016 election.

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“I never thought in my lifetime where’d you have so many single, or I should say, yeah single women who would vote on the issue of somebody else buying their diaphragm,” Lewis said in audio released early in the 2016 GOP primary.

“This is a country in crisis. Those women are ignorant in, I mean, the most generic way… You’ve got a vast majority of young single women who couldn’t explain to you what GDP means. You know what they care about? They care about abortion. They care about abortion and gay marriage. They care about ‘The View.’ They are non-thinking.”

The newly-released comments from Lewis on race are also drawing widespread scrutiny, and are more strident than comments on that topic that were public in 2016.

In a December 2012 segment, Lewis argued that government assistance had warped the priorities of black communities. “What the welfare state has done to the black community, a hundred years of racism could not do,” he said.

The new recordings highlight that the notion of pervasive black-on-white crime was a favorite subject of Lewis’. “Racial violence is all the media rage, but the elephant in the living room is they have it wrong. The real victims of most racial violence are not are not members of the minorities in America. They are white people,” he said.

“I want to be clear about this, I know it’s provocative, but I want to be clear — the chances today of a gang of KKK members beating up a black kid are remote compared to the opposite. A gang of black on white crime.”

In 2016, Lewis was hit for his comments about victims of Hurricane Katrina — many of whom were poor residents of predominantly black communities. “If you talk to real Americans, they think the mistake was a bunch of whiners down there,” he said. “They don’t think we did too little in Katrina, they think people did not help themselves.”

Lewis also drew fire for comparing same-sex marriage to slavery. “If I don’t think it is right, I won’t own [a slave], and people always say ‘well if you don’t want to marry somebody of the same sex, you don’t have to, but why tell somebody else they can’t. Uh, you know if you don’t want to own a slave, don’t. But don’t tell other people they can’t.”

Lewis’ response: attack

Last week and during the 2016 election, Lewis responded to criticism of these comments in a way that honored his talk radio roots: combatively and unapologetically.

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“Liberal reporters and typical politicians may not like the bluntness of the way I’ve framed some issues in my career as a voice in the conservative movement,” Lewis said in February 2016 after a week of uproar over his comments. “As the father of two young daughters, I’m not going to back away from the fight now, especially after two disastrous terms of failed leadership under President Obama.”

Responding to the most recent recordings, Lewis and his campaign have emphasized that his job as a talk radio host was to entertain and be provocative. Beyond that, the Lewis camp has advanced the idea that CNN’s reporting is politically motivated and linked their stories to his DFL opponent, Craig.

“Just this week, with the help of the same political opponent, a disgraced former blogger, who viciously attacked Lewis last cycle,” campaign manager Becky Alery said, referring to Brodkorb, “a partisan DC news outlet published a ‘new’ report on a year’s old Lewis monologue. Except, of course, it isn’t new.”

“This is despicable politics, but there’s a larger and more serious story here. Why isn’t Angie Craig willing to talk about the issues and why is she getting away with it? These attack tactics are a transparent deflection from Craig attempting to avoid actual substance once again.”

In a statement, Craig said Lewis’ remarks “are shocking and don’t represent who we are as Minnesotans. I’m appalled by the belief system these comments reveal and for his failure to hold himself accountable. Our elected officials should be held to the highest standard and Lewis has failed that test time and again.”

Minnesota and national pundits believed that Lewis was a surefire loser in 2016 thanks to his lightning-rod comments that echoed Donald Trump, the GOP presidential nominee who was also widely expected to lose. (Trump also won Minnesota’s 2nd District, which spans suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas south of the Twin Cities.) Though Democrats’ intense focus on the incendiary talk segments did not stop Lewis from defeating Craig by about two percentage points last time, Democratic-aligned groups rushed to make hay with the recently-released comments last week.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Democrats’ House campaign arm, has released several attacks on Lewis, including an email rounding up two dozen news stories about his latest comments. “Jason Lewis is unhinged and in full meltdown mode,” said DCCC spokesperson Rachel Irwin in one email.

The Democratic Governors’ Association, meanwhile, attempted to leverage the Lewis news to weaken Minnesota GOP governor candidates Jeff Johnson and Tim Pawlenty by pressuring them to renounce their endorsements of Lewis.

Squaring old comments with a new record

One of Lewis’ responses to the recent firestorm over his comments reveals a crucial way this episode differs from 2016’s: he now has a legislative record in Congress, which he is using to counter fresh claims that he is an overt racist or misogynist.

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“If you’re trying to suggest that that somehow I’ve got these horrible attitudes or because you were engaged in a provocative radio talk show, even though your record in Congress is very mainstream — GovTrack, puts me as a moderate,” Lewis told CNN on Friday, referring to the website that tracks members of Congress, which does rate Lewis as one of the most centrist members of the House GOP conference, based on votes taken.

“I’m working with (Democratic Rep.) Bobby Scott on criminal justice reform. I wrote a number of op-eds over the years questioning the efficacy of the drug war and specifically citing its impact on minority communities. My actual record is, is fairly clear,” Lewis said.

Lewis’ foes agree that his record is clear — and that it confirms Lewis is who his talk radio comments make him seem.

DFL Party chair Ken Martin said that Lewis’ voting record proves he is doubling down on the worst aspects of his ideology. “Through his unwavering support of policies that hurt women and families, Jason Lewis has demonstrated that he is committed to everything but the people of CD 2.”

Democrats plan to hammer Lewis through election day for his votes in favor of the controversial GOP plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, which failed last summer, along with his vote in favor of the party’s tax cut bill, which became law at the end of last year. Both are key planks of Democrats’ broader argument that under Trump, Republicans have prioritized the interest of wealthy, privileged groups at the expense of working-class and minority groups.

Steven Schier, a professor of politics at Carleton College, said the newly-released Lewis comments could have an impact in November if Democrats are able to make the case that they’ve reflected his priorities and actions as a member of Congress.

“I think it has legs if it ties to his recent behavior in office,” Schier said. “Once you’re an incumbent, in voters’ minds, the key thing is, what are you doing with your position?”