Election season is here, and in Minnesota during these pivotal 2018 midterms, that will mean a lot of talk coming from your TV, Facebook feed, and mailbox about “rubber stamps” and “independent voices,” ties to shadowy special interests and pernicious dark money.
Every election cycle has its bogeymen, but with a historically unpopular president and an electorate that seemingly couldn’t trust Washington any less, Republican and Democratic candidates for Congress in Minnesota’s key races will spend lots of time, and money, persuading voters that their opponent is beholden to someone else.
In many races across the country, that someone else might be President Donald Trump, or Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi. That should be the case in Minnesota, too, but early on in this general election, candidates on both sides have already talked a whole lot about the influence of “special interests.”
In Minnesota’s key congressional races, candidates from both parties are accusing each other of being tools of big business, lobbyists, and urban elites, propped up by swampy dark money. Republicans and Democrats alike are making issues of campaign finance and interest influence a focal point of their campaigns; so too, ironically, are the deep-pocketed super PACs supporting them, which will dump tens of millions of dollars of outside money into Minnesota through election day.
With the primaries wrapped up and general election contests set, candidates are already road-testing these messages for November — giving Minnesota a clear, early idea of the battle lines that will define political dynamics in the state for the next three months.
‘Beholdened to big corporations’ vs. ‘a career politician’
In the battle for the House — where Democrats are favored to overcome a 23-seat deficit and take the majority from Republicans — Minnesota will be a national focal point, with four races rated as “toss-ups” by observers like the Cook Political Report. That’s more than any other state, except for California.
Two of those races are mostly rural open seats in turf that favors Republicans, and two of them are mostly suburban seats where incumbent Republicans are facing confident Democratic challengers.
Minnesota’s 8th District, for example, is one of the best pick-up opportunities for Republicans anywhere on the House map this fall. Aside for a blip caused by the Tea Party wave, the 8th, which spans northeast Minnesota, has been held by Democrats for generations. But Republicans have been performing better there in recent years, and Trump also carried the district by 15 percentage points.
GOP candidate Pete Stauber, a St. Louis County commissioner from Hermantown, has been singled out by the White House for support: Trump has tweeted messages of support for Stauber, and came to Duluth himself to rally for him in June. Vice President Mike Pence has also made the trip to CD8 to stump for Stauber. Aaron Brown, a northern Minnesota political writer, said Stauber and Trump are “attached at the hip” and predicted his vote share will equal Trump’s approval rating in the 8th.
His DFL rival, Joe Radinovich, who prevailed in a contested primary, doesn’t spend a lot of time slamming Trump in the way the party base might like him to. Instead, he is already working to cast his rival as a yes-man for Trump’s agenda, linking him to the Republicans’ tax cut bill and their plans to cut spending on Medicare.
Radinovich, the former state legislator from Crosby, wasted no time going after Stauber, calling him a “rubber stamp” and arguing in his primary victory speech last week that Stauber would be more aligned with Trump’s values than the district’s.
“The last thing our district needs is a representative blinded by party loyalty who will be beholden to big corporations instead of the people standing in rooms like this,” he declared. “The last thing our district needs is Pete Stauber in Washington, D.C.!”
Stauber has made no secret of his strong support for Trump, but has also argued he’d be an independent voice for the district and buck the party if needed. Beyond that, Stauber’s camp is poised to lean on something that’s become a fixture of Minnesota politics: the divide between the Twin Cities and the rest of the state. Radinovich touts himself as a fourth-generation native of northeastern Minnesota, and he’s spent most of his life in Crosby.
In 2017, he managed the campaign of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and briefly was his chief of staff, giving GOP rivals an opening: after Radinovich’s win, Stauber’s campaign called him “a career politician that recently moved here from Minneapolis to advance his own political ambitions;” Republicans have sought to make a nickname — “Metro Joe” — stick to the 32-year old candidate.
The two sides are already getting started: It took barely three days after the close of last Tuesday’s primary for the Stauber and Radinovich camps to begin going after each other on television and in the media: Congressional Leadership Fund, a GOP super PAC, rolled out an attack ad claiming Radinovich dodged his own bills but voted for tax increases in St. Paul.
“Washington special interests will say and spend whatever it takes to rig this race in favor of their hand-picked candidate Pete Stauber,” responded Radinovich’s campaign spokesperson, Jordan Hagert.
Trading barbs in the ‘burbs
Minnesota’s 2nd and 3rd Districts, which encompass suburban and exurban areas west and south of the Twin Cities, should see similar dynamics play out, even though the political particulars are different. In their quest to take back the House, Democrats will be trying to flip these seats, long favorable to the GOP.
In the 3rd District, which spans the suburbs west of Minneapolis, five-term GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen — who easily won in 2016 even as Hillary Clinton won by nine points in the district — faces Democrat Dean Phillips.
Special interest loyalties and influence may define the contest in this race, where the central element of Phillips’ pitch isn’t the incumbent’s connection to Trump, but his connection to moneyed corporate donors. His camp is using that to spin a broader narrative about who the veteran congressman really serves.
“Out of 435 members of Congress, Erik Paulsen has raised the eighth most money from special interests — including another $500,000 in the last three months alone. Simply put, his votes are being bought and sold,” Phillips said last month.
Phillips has made campaign finance reform a pillar of his campaign, vowing not to accept contributions from PACs, lobbyists, or elected officials, and challenging Paulsen to do the same.
But Paulsen’s camp has been unafraid to hit back on that same turf, seeking to cast Phillips as a hypocrite because major Democratic super PACs are poised to spend millions to attack Paulsen and boost Phillips. (Last week, House Majority PAC, House Democrats’ leading PAC, unveiled three billboards highlighting Phillips as a “Minnesota businessman” in favor of “real tax relief.”)
“If Dean Phillips actually cared about campaign finance reform, he’d ask Nancy Pelosi to take her special interest money back,” responded Paulsen campaign manager John-Paul Yates, invoking Republicans’ go-to villain in battleground House races. (Phillips himself, like Democratic competitors in other districts, has not explicitly supported Pelosi.)
Across the metro in the 2nd District, which spans suburbs and exurbs south of the Twin Cities, freshman GOP Rep. Jason Lewis faces Democrat Angie Craig after narrowly beating her in 2016, as Trump carried the district by a thin margin.
Special interest loyalties will be a key theme in this nationally-watched race, too. Craig is working to cast Lewis, a former conservative radio commentator, as a corporate-backed foot soldier in the Republican House who enthusiastically voted for the Republicans’ tax cut and Obamacare repeal legislation.
When Speaker Paul Ryan traveled to the district on behalf of Lewis, Craig’s campaign linked the two, arguing Lewis’ vote was “for sale,” citing a report from the campaign finance reform group End Citizens United that put the Republican in its so-called “Big Money 20” list of congressmen who “do the bidding of special interests.” “During his term in Congress, Lewis has proven that he does not have Minnesota families’ best interests in mind,” Craig said.
But Lewis is using the special interest playbook on Craig, too, making use of the years she spent as an executive at the powerful medical device firm St. Jude Medical. The Lewis campaign has used that as a basis to attack Craig on health care policy and campaign finance.
“In 2011, St. Jude Medical & their PAC, chaired by none other than Ms. Craig, steered over $750,000 to lobbyists, candidates and special interest groups in order to pass the [Affordable Care Act],” said Lewis campaign manager Becky Alery last month. “During Craig’s time there, St. Jude Medical spent nearly five million to lobby to exempt her firm from the tax to pay for it. Naturally, in 2016 she went on to haul in more campaign dollars from her industry than any other House, Senate or even Presidential candidate in the nation.”