Election Day is about five months away, but Santiago Tolman, an independent who has voted for Democrats and Republicans, already knows who won’t get his vote.
“He’s an embarrassment, if you want one word,” the 67-year-old woodworker from Shorewood said of Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee for president. “He’s a racist.”
But the presence of Trump at the top of the Republican ticket might not be reason enough for Tolman to abandon U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen. The Republican congressman has been re-elected three times since 2010 by comfortable margins in Minnesota’s Third District, which went for President Obama in 2008 and 2012.
“I look at [Paulsen’s] voting record, and it doesn’t [anger me],” Tolman said.
“Maybe I might not have voted the same all the time, but it looks like a good compromise. Seems like he’s working across the aisle.”
The likely presence of Trump at the top of the GOP ticket this fall has upended the traditional election-year calculus for both parties. Republicans, worried about losing their party’s control of both the House and the Senate, have embraced the New York real estate developer warily — if at all. Democrats, meanwhile, are vigorously trying to link every Trump statement to all GOP incumbents, and they’ve set their sights on critical swing districts, as well as safe GOP-leaning districts such as Paulsen’s.
The Third District encompasses nearly 470 square miles, stretching across the western suburbs of Hennepin County. Brooklyn Park lies in the northern part of the district, which stretches west to Maple Plain and south to Bloomington. Eden Prairie, Edina and Minnetonka are also in the district.
Paulsen, 51, faces a well-known Democratic challenger this fall who already is attacking his lukewarm endorsement of Trump. But that doesn’t bother Ken Neitzel, a 72-year-old retiree from Shorewood.
“I make up my own mind,” Neitzel said on a recent weekday. “I don’t care what the governor says, what the congressman says [in terms of endorsements]. It doesn’t mean diddly. Am I going to vote for Trump? I don’t know. Am I going to vote for Hillary? I don’t know either.”
State Sen. Terri Bonoff, a Minnetonka Democrat, said Paulsen has failed to lead by not repudiating Trump’s candidacy.
“Its not a question of linking Erik Paulsen to Trump,” Bonoff, 58, said. “It’s a question of holding Erik Paulsen accountable for allowing him to be their standard-bearer.”
In an interview, Paulsen struggled to offer a firm endorsement of his party’s presidential nominee, underscoring the difficulty Republicans will have when asked to answer for Trump’s latest comments about Mexicans, Muslims, women and other groups.
“We have two historically unpopular presidential candidates and, like a lot of voters, I have problems with both of them,” Paulsen said.
He added: “Again, we haven’t had the [Republican National] Convention yet. I said I expect to vote for the Republican nominee, but he has to earn my support. He hasn’t yet.”
Pressed to clarify whether he will vote for Trump, Paulsen said: “I said I expect to — that doesn’t mean I’m committed to it.”
His district is an affluent one and home to the headquarters of major companies such as Supervalu, UnitedHealth Group, Famous Dave’s and Cargill. And it stands out in an era of hyperpartisanship that many blame for political gridlock in Washington.
Voters here said they prize moderate lawmakers who have a history of working with members of the opposing party. Indeed, Paulsen and Bonoff, a business-friendly DFLer, are both highlighting their bipartisan records.
Trump’s unpopularity with well-educated voters is expected to be a weakness in the Third District, where nearly half of voters hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. That’s the highest rate of Minnesota’s eight congressional districts.
“This [election] makes me more nervous than I’ve ever been,” said Amanda Budde, 34, of Eden Prairie. “I’m so embarrassed about this one. It’s such a circus. White House-wise, I’ve been so happy the past eight years, and I’m so nervous it’s going to go in a terrible direction.”
The stay-at-home mother said education and gun control are two issues she is most concerned about this year. She said she planned to vote for Bonoff, even if she doesn’t know her very well.
Lynn Tolman, a 60-year-old graphic artist, said she, too, hopes that lawmakers in D.C. will enact new gun-control measures, as well as increase mental-health services that she said could help prevent future mass shootings.
While Bonoff is well-known in DFL circles, her late entry to the race means she has ground to make up to build her name recognition outside of the Senate district she has represented since 2006.
“I’ve heard the name, but that’s all I know,” said Bev Davenport, a 73-year-old retired cosmetics saleswoman.
Paulsen, too, is unknown to some voters who struggled to name him.
Nehwon Norkeh, 21, of Brooklyn Park, said he was vaguely familiar with Paulsen and would consider candidates based on their individual merits.
“I don’t believe that party affiliation should determine who you vote for,” the college student said.
Bonoff said her message of “uniting the middle” will resonate with voters. “I know that our district is strongly independent in terms of their beliefs that they vote for candidates, not parties.” Bonoff said.
Paulsen’s voting record on environmental issues and women’s health are at odds with district voters, she said.
Paulsen deflected that criticism, saying that on many issues he has worked hand in hand with Democrats, including with fellow members of the Minnesota delegation.
“We all have different views and opinions,” Paulsen said. “But in the end, it’s important we share with each other what our priorities are so we can also work together.”
Staff writer MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.