Pivotal Minnesota

By Jim Ellis

May 10, 2016 — If the Democrats are to have any chance of making major gains in the 2016 House of Representatives elections, they must take advantage of seats in states like Minnesota where they traditionally perform well. Now, it appears the slates are virtually set for the North Star State’s fall elections.

The Republicans held their party endorsing convention over the weekend, which likely produced their congressional nominees. The Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) held their convention at an earlier date.

While the DFL candidates are challenging for two of the state’s three Republican seats, the Minnesota GOP also has two potential conversion opportunities.

The weekend’s major convention fight came in Rep. John Kline’s (R-Burnsville) open 2nd District. There, radio talk show host and 1990 congressional candidate Jason Lewis (R) prevailed on the sixth ballot to win the party endorsement. Normally, the convention victory is tantamount to nomination but two of the losing candidates in this district, manufacturing executive Darlene Miller, who enjoys outgoing Rep. Kline’s endorsement, and former state Sen. John Howe look to force an Aug. 9 primary.

Going to primary may put the Republicans at a major disadvantage against Democratic nominee Angie Craig, a healthcare executive who has already raised $1.8 million for the race with $1.3 million in the bank. The lag time will allow Craig more time to lay the foundation for her general election campaign, and then come out swinging as soon as the Republicans select an official nominee. Depending upon how the presidential race unfolds, the extra time and better ability to take an offensive posture may be definitive in motivating casual presidential year-only voters.

The 2nd District, which touches the Twin Cities’ southern border and then moves southeast along the Wisconsin state line to include four counties and parts of two others, is a marginal district. President Obama took 50.5 percent here in 2008 and outlasted Mitt Romney in 2012 by a margin of just one-tenth of a percent. In its current configuration, Kline won victories of 56 (2014) and 54 percent (2012) against the same opponent, former state Rep. Mike Obermueller (DFL), who spent close to $1 million in both of his campaigns.

Back in 2008, state Sen. Terri Bonoff (DFL) was gearing up to run for the then-open 3rd District after incumbent Rep. Jim Ramstad (R) announced his retirement. But newcomer Ashwin Madia beat her at the DFL convention and Bonoff chose not to force a primary, instead returning to the state Senate. Now, she has a clear path and the party endorsement to challenge four-term Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Eden Prairie) in the marginal Minneapolis suburban district.

A late entry into the race, meaning Bonoff is at ground zero in fundraising, starkly contrasts to Rep. Paulsen’s strong preparation. He begins his re-election effort with almost $2.5 million in his campaign coffers. The 50/50 nature of this district, particularly in a presidential election year, means the outcome will be close irrespective of outside factors.

Republicans are mounting another challenge to 8th District Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Crosby/Duluth). They return with their 2014 nominee, businessman Stewart Mills, who came within one point of beating Nolan after waging a $2+ million campaign. This will again be a serious challenge effort, but MN-8 performs as a much stronger Democratic district in the presidential election years.

In the southern-most 1st District, Rep. Tim Walz (D-Mankato/Rochester) seeks a sixth term in office. Republicans again counter with Jim Hagedorn, son of former Rep. Tom Hagedorn (R) who lost his seat in 1982 after serving four terms. Hagedorn recorded 46 percent against Rep. Walz two years ago, and spent only $238,000. He must considerably increase his campaign resources if he is serious about waging an aggressive challenge in 2016.

The presidential race will greatly affect all of these races. At least three of the contests could fall into the toss-up range before Election Day arrives.

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