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Jason Lewis and Angie Craig square off again in Minnesota’s 2nd District. What’s different this time around?

The names on the ballot are the same, but a lot has changed.

Angie Craig greeting attendees of the 2018 Twin Cities Pride Parade.
Angie Craig greeting attendees of the 2018 Twin Cities Pride Parade.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

Angie Craig is trying to be a better candidate than she was in 2016. The Democrat, a former medical device executive from Eagan, ran in Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District race that year as a favorite to pick up the suburban south-metro seat.

Polished, poised and running a campaign that prided itself on prolific fundraising and field efforts, Craig was regarded as a cream-of-the-crop recruit by national Democrats — but she lost, by just under two percentage points, to longtime talk radio host Jason Lewis.

It was one of election night’s most surprising results — Lewis had been written off by many Republicans — and a major blow to a candidate who had seemingly done everything right. This year, Craig is back on the campaign trail again, as a challenger to the now-incumbent Lewis, and she’s had a bit of time to think about what to do differently.

For one, the 46-year old Democrat says she’s doing a lot more listening this time around, calling as many local leaders, like mayors, as she can to hear about what’s on their minds. And she says she’s telling her personal story a little more — she rose from an Arkansas trailer park to a top position at a major medical technology company — and talking about her wife and four sons a little more often, too.

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Though the names on the ballot are the same, there’s plenty that is different in this year’s battle for the 2nd Congressional District seat.

While the 2016 contest was seemingly a referendum on Donald Trump — the president was expected to be toxic in districts like this, but he ended up carrying CD2 by 1.2 points — the 2018 rematch will be more like a referendum on Lewis’ record, and on what the Republican-led Congress has accomplished under Trump.

Instead of linking Lewis to Trump like they did last time, Craig and fellow Democrats plan to hammer the congressman on issues like tax cuts and, particularly, health care, an area the former St. Jude Medical executive believes is a winner for her.

Lewis, meanwhile, would love nothing more than an election about his record, and he’s making the case that voting Democrats like Craig into office would jeopardize the national economic growth that, in his telling, has been fueled by Trump and congressional Republicans.

But some things in CD2 won’t change: like last time, it will be a top-tier race for both parties and a pivotal battleground in the fight for control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Angie woulda won

Craig, to be clear, believes she would have won on November 8, 2016, if it were not for a perfect storm of bad fortune — outside factors, that in her telling, derailed a winning bid.

Sitting under an umbrella at the Minnesota Farmers Union booth as a light drizzle came down at the State Fair, Craig offered a clinical autopsy of her failed 2016 effort.

The first issue was the Independence Party candidate, Paula Overby, who earned 28,869 votes, nearly eight percent of the total. (Lewis beat Craig by 6,655 votes.) “We’ve seen data,” Craig said. “She took six percent of Democratic votes from me. That was 1.9 percent of the total, enough to turn the election.”

The second was the Trump wave, which Craig illuminated by citing a figure — six percent same-day voter registration in CD2 — which was mostly made up of low-frequency voters showing up to vote for Trump, hurting down-ballot candidates like Craig. The final factor, she says, “was Democrats were frustrated by the top of the ticket” — presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — and didn’t turn out.

“If any one of the three factors hadn’t happened, I would have beat Jason Lewis in 2016,” she said. “This is the data I looked at when I said, I’m going again.”

Since getting in the race, Craig says she’s feeling an election climate far more favorable to her than last time. “I show up in places this cycle that, if I had 100 votes there in 2016 I’d be surprised, and there are 100 people there,” she said. “I literally went down to New Prague last September” — a town located in a Minnesota House district that preferred Lewis by nearly 30 points — “walked in the door, and there’s 100 people in the room.”

Craig chalks up that apparent interest in her candidacy to groups who came together after the 2016 election — “mostly women,” she says — who were unhappy with the direction of the country and the chaos under Trump. “I think what folks tell me is, they just want a representative who is focused on the things they care about, and just working together again in this country.”

If that suggests Craig will run a Trump-focused campaign — like the one that she and Democrats did last time, expecting his unpopularity would be a drag on Lewis — she made clear she definitely is not.

“I never talk about the president,” Craig said. “We’ve got to tell people what we’re gonna fight for. We have to tell them what we care about, why we care about it, and we’ve gotta tell them what we’re gonna fight for. I think that’s how we win.”

So, Craig is talking a lot about health care — at nearly every chance she gets, she talks about how Democrats have prioritized access to health care over cost — along with other bread-and-butter issues like student loan debt and the impact of the GOP tax bill on CD2.  Attacking Lewis on his votes in favor of the Republicans’ two biggest pieces of legislation in this Congress — the tax law that passed and the Obamacare repeal-and-replace that did not — will be the core of Craig’s case to voters this fall.

“A large percentage of my district doesn’t even realize what capping state and local taxes at $10,000 is going do to their 2019 tax bill,” she said, referencing the cut in taxpayers’ ability to deduct state and local tax liability in the new tax law. “The income inequality that he just lit a match to by essentially taking $2 trillion and adding it to the deficit so that 83 percent of that value could go to large corporations and the top one percent, that certainly doesn’t benefit my district.”

“He campaigned to be an independent voice for Minnesota, and I think his track record is anything but that,” she said. “And I’m optimistic that voters are going to see through that here in 2018.”

Jason being Jason

“I think there were misconceptions about the kind of legislator I was going to be,” Jason Lewis said with a grin, from the front seat of his campaign manager’s car as they headed down I-35E to knock doors in Lakeville last Saturday.

Lewis is well-attuned to the picture Democrats painted of him ahead of his 2016 win: a strident right-wing ideologue and an unhinged talk radio pundit who once derided young women as “non-thinking” for focusing on reproductive rights issues.

Without doubt, Lewis is still very much the talk radio pontificator: during a rile-’em-up speech to GOP volunteers in Eagan earlier that day, Lewis casually dropped phrases like “monopoly of force” and names like Scoop Jackson, a Democratic U.S. Senator from Washington state who ended his four-decade D.C. career in 1983.

But Lewis said the big difference for him this election is he now has a record to run on. He argues he has been an independent-minded lawmaker on consequential issues like criminal justice reform, and is quick to remind of his legislation, co-sponsored by Virginia Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott, to reform sentencing law for federal crimes with an eye toward reducing incarceration rates.

“If you think you’re going to get things your way all the time,” Lewis says of Congress, “you’re gonna find a different line of work. You’ve got to compromise.”

Though Lewis is eager to tout his bipartisan work and self-described independent streak, listen to him for a moment and it’s clear what his case to CD2 voters is: if you like what the Republican Congress is doing — and what President Trump is doing — vote for him, because Craig and Democrats will reverse what they’ve done.

“This isn’t just a regular midterm,” Lewis says. “Lots of good things come to a halt if we don’t prevail.” Those things, which Lewis rattles off like a practiced salesman, include three percent wage growth, four percent GDP growth, and tax cuts to CD2 residents thanks to the GOP’s legislation.

Rep. Jason Lewis speaking with campaign staffers
MinnPost photo by Sam Brodey

Rep. Jason Lewis speaking with campaign staffers prior to door knocking in Lakeville last Saturday.
“You get the impression it’s the Democrats who are pleading to constituents — ‘look, are you going to believe me or your own eyes?’ Because with their own eyes, they’re seeing progress,” he said. “Nancy Pelosi and company are trying to tell them it’s not progress, it’s crumbs. I think it’s going to redound to our benefit.”

The congressman is also a little looser these days when it comes to the topic of the man in the Oval Office. Trotting out a line he uses often — that he likes what Trump is doing, but probably wouldn’t “do things the way he does them all the time” — Lewis defended the president, suggesting he’s rightly frustrated with pressures on his presidency, chiefly special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia.

He also argued that voters care more about the economy and issues like illegal immigration than, for example, the news that Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, declared under oath that Trump directed him to pay off adult film actress Stormy Daniels weeks before the 2016 election to keep quiet about a 2006 affair. (Lewis noted, too, that Craig has not yet worked hard to link him to Trump. “I’m wondering what’s behind that strategy,” he said, “unless the president is more popular than people think.”)

“If you asked people in the 2nd District what’s going to have a greater impact on your life, securing the border and getting a handle on immigration, or Michael Cohen’s taxi medallions, it’s a no-brainer.”

Democrats, Lewis said, “want to make it a national race on some of these constant reports on the special counsel. They are terrified of taking a definitive stand on an issue.”

Taking nothing for granted

The race in Minnesota’s 2nd will once again feature prominently on the national election map: Democrats view this as one of their best pick-up opportunities in a year when the party is going all-in on the House, seeking to flip the 23 seats needed to hand them the majority. Election forecasters like the Cook Political Report rate CD2 as one of two-dozen true toss-up races, one of four total in Minnesota.

Despite his incumbency advantage, and his likely considerable advantage in name recognition, Lewis is already being framed as an underdog: polling models, like the one built by the data site FiveThirtyEight, give him just a one in four chance of winning. In a lengthy story on the midterm elections, the New York Times suggested that national Republicans had written off incumbents, specifically naming Lewis as an example.

The congressman, of course, disagrees. “Nobody’s writing anything off,” he said. “Let me put it to you this way: we are doing as well as any swing district in the country right now.” Lewis’ guest in CD2 on Saturday, Georgia Republican Rep. Tom Graves, wouldn’t be in town if Republicans had written him off, he added.

Graves, sitting in the backseat of the campaign car to join Lewis in Lakeville, piped up with a detail: Lewis is poised to be a leading beneficiary of a joint fundraising committee led by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. “You couldn’t assume he’d be part of a JFC called Protect the House if the race had been written off,” Graves said. (Lewis has picked up his fundraising this cycle, sitting at just under $2 million raised at the end of June, which is almost twice as much as he’d raised in all of 2016.)

Craig, for her part, is not taking anything for granted. Her fundraising operation is strong once again; she had raised $2.3 million as of the last filing deadline in June.

“When I read comments like, Republicans have written off this district, I say, yeah, well, people thought we were going to win in 2016,” she said. “But I’m incredibly optimistic that the voters of this congressional district are ready to make a change, and a change toward a member of Congress who’s going to prioritize their needs first.”

A central feature of the Craig-Lewis rematch will be a debate over just that. Craig’s camp argues that Lewis’ vote can be bought and sold, and they often point to the large sums of money he receives from political action committees linked to corporations and members of Congress. Lewis, meanwhile, frequently brings up Craig’s time at St. Jude Medical, saying she engaged in swamp-style special interest politics while serving on a committee that made decisions about where that company’s considerable PAC money flowed.

The two candidates are also going at each other hard over health care, which figures to be in the spotlight in this district, which includes well-off bedroom communities and rural agricultural towns. Craig expresses skepticism of the idea of single-payer health care, which is increasingly in the Democratic mainstream, and talks about the more pressing need to shore up Obamacare programs now. Lewis’ campaign is ready to hammer her on those stances, and the congressman is promising to take another go at repealing Obamacare if he gets another term in Congress.

One big feature of this race will feel familiar to CD2 voters: the issue of what Lewis said during his decades on talk radio airwaves. Over the summer, reporters at CNN and BuzzFeed News have published excerpts of Lewis’ program from the early 2010s, which include Lewis lamenting that it was no longer acceptable to call women “sluts” and argued people on welfare were “parasites” who “substituted one plantation for another.”

Similar comments were public knowledge when CD2 voters sent Lewis to Washington in 2016, and Lewis is maintaining it was his job in those days to be provocative. Whether or not Craig and Democrats will make a lot of noise on these newly-released comments remains to be seen.

Saying she has been reluctant to comment on Lewis’ remarks, Craig ventured unprompted that his comments do not represent Minnesota values. “I am more optimistic than ever that Minnesota voters are going to agree with me,” she said. “I’m fairly offended by some of the things Jason Lewis has said, but I’m more offended by the votes he’s taken in this Congress, and so, I have plenty to talk about to voters.”

Lewis, meanwhile, remains the picture of confidence. People in CD2 liked him enough last time; he jokes he doubled Trump’s thin victory margin in 2016.

“To be perfectly immodest about it,” Lewis says, “I’ve given them no reason not to do that again.”