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Is Karin Housley the Minnesota GOP’s best shot at a Senate seat in a decade?

The conventional wisdom has been that Housley faces long odds in her effort to be the first Republican to win a U.S. Senate seat in Minnesota in 16 years.

Senate candidate Karin Housley
Senate candidate Karin Housley speaking to attendees of the 2018 Republican endorsing convention.
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday

Karin Housley was very excited to be a guest of honor at the Future Farmers of America’s Beef Championships on the opening weekend of the Minnesota State Fair, though she confessed to not knowing too much about the event beforehand.

Sitting in a row of plastic folding chairs on the earthy floor of the Lee & Rose Warner Coliseum, Housley and her fellow guests of honor watched as teenagers from across Minnesota led their cattle in front of a packed crowd.

Afterward, as she walked through the coliseum’s concourse, scattered moos echoing in the background, Housley relayed that she chatted up a cattle expert next to her to learn more about the kids and the cows. It was, to her, just an extension of her job as a state senator, which requires broad knowledge on a range of issues. “You just call a person up,” she said. “It’s like getting your Ph.D. in issues.”

With more than five years in the Minnesota Senate under her belt, Housley is now attempting to graduate to the U.S. Senate: She is the Republican Party’s nominee in the special election to fill the seat that Al Franken vacated in January. The 54-year-old has managed to carve out a niche in St. Paul, and has won two terms in a Washington County district that leans Republican — but far less than her 20-point margin of victory in 2016 would suggest.

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But Housley faces a steep learning curve in jumping to a statewide campaign against a formidable DFL opponent. That opponent, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, was appointed to this seat by Gov. Mark Dayton in January and has been working in Washington all year. The former lieutenant governor is a veteran Minnesota political hand, and has already raised $4 million toward her election.

The conventional wisdom has been that Housley faces long odds in her effort to be the first Republican to win a U.S. Senate seat in Minnesota in 16 years. But coming off an unexpectedly strong 2016 for the party — and heading into a special election that no one saw coming a year ago — many Republicans believe Housley is a sleeper candidate. Some even say she’s the best statewide candidate the GOP has put forward in years.

To have a shot, Housley must introduce herself to Minnesotans before her opponents do it for her. It’s a task the outgoing and perennially upbeat candidate relishes: “I used to knock on doors even if they had my opponent’s sign in the yard,” Housley says. “I want to earn everybody’s trust.”

Minnesota royalty

A thing many people will tell you about Housley is that she’s personable, relatable, and can connect with people more easily than your average politician. Indeed, strolling around the state fairgrounds, Housley often comes off less like a seasoned state legislator and politician and more like someone you might chat with in the checkout line at Costco.

But Housley is unlike the suburban moms and dads at a big box store, and not just because of her title: The St. Paul native is part of professional hockey royalty. Her husband and high school sweetheart, Phil Housley, is a National Hockey League hall-of-famer who is regarded as one of the best ever to play the game. His two-decade career in the pros took the family — they have four kids — to nine cities in the U.S. and Canada, from Buffalo and Chicago to Calgary and St. Louis.

After Phil retired from hockey in 2003, the family made their home in St. Mary’s Point, on the St. Croix River just south of the I-94 crossing into Wisconsin. A neighbor of the Housleys is Stan Hubbard, the Twin Cities media mogul and prolific conservative political donor. (The Hubbard family has given over $17,000 to Housley’s Senate campaign.)

In Washington County, Housley built a successful real estate business, which now employs her two daughters. Currently, her office lists 11 homes for sale in the area, ranging from $300,000 to nearly $3 million. The Housleys’ own home is a mansion on the St. Croix riverfront that features a dock, boat and plenty of hockey memorabilia. (In 2017, Phil was named head coach of the N.H.L.’s Buffalo Sabres.)

In an April 2017 story, Housley told the Star Tribune that she and her husband were never especially political, voting the DFL line like many of their neighbors in labor-dominated South St. Paul. “So we went through life just thinking we were Democrats, and would vote that way until our late 30s, when I basically started to Google, ‘What are you?’ ” Housley recounted. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Phil, we’re Republicans.’ ”

In 2010 — acting on the encouragement of her neighbor, Stan Hubbard — Housley ran for state Senate in her home turf, which was then part of Senate District 57, branding herself as a small business owner dismayed with the direction of Minnesota government. She narrowly lost to DFL state Sen. Katie Sieben, but ran again two years later in the newly redistricted Senate District 39, defeating Julie Bunn. In 2016, she beat Sten Hakanson by 23 points.

In St. Paul, Housley has made a focus on issues facing seniors a personal signature. When Republicans took the Senate majority in 2017, Housley became chair of the Senate’s Committee on Aging and Long-Term Care Policy, which was in the spotlight this year as lawmakers considered reforms in the wake of a government report detailing serious flaws in the elder-care industry, and heard testimony from victims of elder abuse. (A bill Housley championed to reform the system was not taken up by the close of the session.)

“It’s one of my passions,” Housley told MinnPost of her work on seniors’ issues. “That’s the one thing people come up to me and talk about.”

GOP state Sen. Carrie Ruud, who represents a north-central Minnesota district, came into the Senate the same year as Housley, and says she’s seen her friend and colleague grow into the job. “She really is able to see the picture, and the endgame, and how to get there,” Ruud says.

“There’s not a whole lot of people who have that vision. That’s a real big gift and talent to have as a politician.”

An unexpected opportunity

As her responsibilities have increased in St. Paul, Housley has kept an eye on higher office. In 2014, she was businessman Scott Honour’s running-mate for his unsuccessful campaign for governor; recently, Housley herself has been thought of as a potential governor candidate for the GOP.

Last year, Housley told the Star Tribune she had no interest in running for Congress, even though she had been approached about doing so. But in late 2017, when a sexual misconduct scandal arose and forced Al Franken from his U.S. Senate seat, Housley changed her mind. She officially jumped in the special election race just before Christmas, after Gov. Dayton had announced he would appoint Smith.

Asked why she decided to run, Housley said that she knew she could do a better job in Washington than Smith. “She’s a political operative, she always has been an individual behind the scenes,” Housley said of her opponent. “She’s never run a small business, never been out there with the general public. People are looking for a new voice — here I am.” (Smith’s campaign pointed out that the senator ran a PR and marketing firm earlier in her career.)

When it comes to policy, Housley is running more or less as a standard-issue Republican: She favors repealing the Affordable Care Act, has cheered the tax cut bill that was signed into law last year, and opposes abortion rights. (That last issue may figure prominently: Smith is a former executive for Planned Parenthood, and Housley and her campaign have taken to calling the Democrat a “single-issue” candidate focused on abortion.)

In her interview with MinnPost, Housley described herself as an “independent Republican,” invoking the former moniker of the Minnesota GOP. But the most challenging test of Housley’s independence in this election may be presented by Trump. The president remains beloved among the hard-core GOP voters who will need to show up for Housley for her to have any chance to win in November; at the same time, the president is unpopular among the independent voters who could sway the election on the margins, according to most public polls.

Like many Republicans, Housley expresses exasperation with Trump’s “style,” but is generally supportive of his policy agenda. “I wish he would tweet less,” she said, adding that the president doesn’t have to “air [his] grievances publicly” on every subject.

“He’s done some really, really good things that people like,” she went on. “I don’t always love his style, most of the time I don’t love his style, but that is our president’s style. … He’s doing exactly what he said he’s going to do, and he’s getting things done.”

The polarizing issue of immigration — one that Trump hopes will preserve Republican majorities in Congress — is illustrative of the fine line Housley walks. When pressed for an example of how she’d buck the president, she raised the issue of family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I came out ahead of him signing the executive order,” Housley said of Trump’s response to a crisis exacerbated by his administration, “and I said I didn’t think that was right, and I wanted to keep families together.

“I’m definitely not afraid to say when I disagree with the president on anything, because I am a strong, independent woman.”

At the same time, Housley has not shied away from Trump-style immigration rhetoric targeted at the GOP base. Following the news in August that a Mexican immigrant confessed to murdering Iowa college student Mollie Tibbets, Housley said her killing was a “a preventable tragedy that happened because liberal Democrats and open border advocates are more concerned about protecting criminal aliens than protecting innocent lives like Molly Tibbetts.”

Housley on the campaign trail

Earlier in the year, many observers of the emerging special election contest did not give Housley and Republicans much of a shot to claim this seat, considering it a lower-tier pickup opportunity for the GOP.

That’s largely because the majority party has so many opportunities elsewhere on the Senate map: With 10 incumbent Democrats on the ballot in states Trump won in 2016, like deep-red North Dakota and West Virginia, Republicans have plenty of easier seats to flip than the one once held by Al Franken and Paul Wellstone.

Housley acknowledges that at the beginning of her run, it was tough to get the attention of national Republicans. “I actually don’t blame them, because we haven’t won a statewide election since 2002,” Housley said. “I just kept saying, I can run a hard race, I have run a hard race, I know what your message is and I know what’s resonating. I will work hard and I will raise the money, so please don’t write it off.”

On the fundraising front, Housley has worked to back up that promise: As of late July, she had raised a respectable $1.8 million — 10 percent of that coming from her own pockets — which is enough for her campaign to run TV ads and make other moves needed to make the race competitive. Smith has outraised her by over $2 million, but the Democrat only holds a $600,000 cash-on-hand advantage.

National Republicans regard Housley as an exceptionally strong recruit for Minnesota, and believe she’s setting up a viable path to victory for her campaign. Brad Todd, a GOP operative, tweeted in August a favorable comparison to Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Democrat running against Ted Cruz who has become a viral star. “Impressive challenger in a similar spot on the target bubble,” Todd said of Housley.

While deep-pocketed groups like the National Republican Senate Committee aren’t doing anything concrete on Housley’s behalf yet, they are likely to in the run-up to the general election. Over the summer, Housley was a beneficiary of fundraisers by incumbent Republicans, like Georgia Sen. David Perdue, in the same category as GOP Senate candidates in Arizona and Indiana who are considered top-tier recruits.

NRSC spokesman Michael McAdams said Housley offered a “record of achievement and compelling personal story” that stands in “stark contrast” to Smith. “Over the next two months, Minnesota voters will get to decide whether they want to send a new voice to Washington or continue supporting the failed agenda Tina Smith represents,” McAdams said.

But the campaign trail has not always been smooth for her. Her Democratic rivals made hay with an interview Housley did with the Star Tribune’s Patricia Lopez at the State Fair: When asked about proposals to shore up Social Security, Housley could not offer an in-depth answer about any one idea. (Social Security is the first issue listed on the policy section of Housley’s website.)

“I haven’t sat down to look at any of them,” Housley said of proposals to improve Social Security. “I haven’t seen them.” (Later, before an appearance on AM1280, a conservative talk station, Housley joked she needed to “brush up” on Social Security.)

The Smith campaign has highlighted several media appearances in which Housley did not go into details on issues like climate change, trade, and health care, painting her as someone who is “unable to answer basic policy questions.”

“Minnesota voters expect their elected officials to have a firm grasp on the issues that impact their lives in profound ways, whether it’s preserving and protecting Social Security or addressing the rising cost of health care,” said Smith spokesperson Jen Gates. “Minnesotans deserve a senator who will work hard, work across the aisle, solve problems and get the job done — not someone who is going to wait for proposals to be put in front of them or wait for party leaders to tell them what to do.”

‘A perfect storm’

“I think I’m a good candidate, I don’t think Tina Smith is very well known, I think the Republican message is resonating,” Housley said at the State Fair last month, after sharing a front-row seat to the Beef Championships with her DFL opponent. “I feel like it’s a perfect storm right now.”

The Cook Political Report, which rates the competitiveness of U.S. House and Senate races, initially tagged the special election in Minnesota as a “likely Democratic” hold, but shifted it to “leans Democratic.” The few public polls that have been released on the race show Smith ahead — a Suffolk University poll from late August had her up by seven points — but with sizable swaths of the electorate not knowing much about either candidate.

Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Report, told MinnPost that voters’ relative unfamiliarity with Smith and Housley could be a boon for the Republican. “I think Housley has an interesting profile,” Duffy said. “It looks more like an open seat than people thought it might. People who meet Housley are impressed by her.”

She added, however, that Smith is still a favorite, pointing out the strong numbers that DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar as likely to notch at the top of the ticket, as she skates to a third term. “It’s a very competitive race,” Duffy said. “Smith has to make a mistake, which seems unlikely. … It sort of puts the onus on Housley to make this competitive.”

Allies say that the Republican is working hard on that front. According to Luke Hellier, who first met Housley as a staffer to the Senate GOP in 2013, Housley might be the most tireless Republican running statewide this year. “Of all the candidates running, I don’t think I’ve seen more people go out to do local TV interviews,” he said. “Duluth, Rochester, she’s out there, getting her name out there more than anyone.”

“I see this as an under-the-radar kind of race. As we get closer, it could be a top-tier race, all of a sudden,” he said. “I really don’t think there’s anybody other than her that’d make this race as competitive as it’s going to be.”

Housley’s colleague, state Sen. Ruud, said “I don’t think there’s anybody that’s working harder, who’s been as many places and connected with as many people as Karin has. She’s just a workaholic. She really wants to do this.”

The Republican is clear-eyed about the difficulty she faces in becoming the first Republican U.S. Senator from Minnesota in a decade. When asked about her worries for the home stretch, Housley said she sleeps just fine these days.

“My first campaign, I didn’t sleep,” she laughed. “This one, I feel so good about what we’re doing, our message, the reception we’re getting and the job I know I can do in Washington, D.C., it’s very, very exciting.”

“I’m going to work my tail off,” Housley said, as she stood by the door of the Lee & Rose Warner Coliseum on a rainy day, a few hundred thousand Minnesotans out at the fair, the tennis-shoe clad candidate just waiting to introduce herself to them.