Washington – Democrats swept the suburbs in state and local elections in two states last week, giving Minnesota DFLers hope that the same kind of electoral backlash will keep building against President Donald Trump and his agenda ahead of next year's congressional elections
Congressional seats across the state are up for grabs in 2018, from the open First District that runs across southern Minnesota to the battleground Eighth District in the northeastern part of the state. But it's the suburban swing districts south and west of the Twin Cities that are drawing some of the most intense national interest, and generating some of the most excitement among Democrats hoping to flip two prize Republican seats next year.
"Everywhere I go, there are 50, 100, 200 more people than I even knew existed in the last election cycle," said Angie Craig, a Democrat who lost one of the closest congressional races in the country to Republican Rep. Jason Lewis a year ago. The campaign trail she returned to this year, she said, is crowded with activists eager to turn their outrage at the president and his policies into action.
For Craig, the Nov. 7 results signaled a shift in the national mood and the political landscape — particularly in the suburbs. Again and again, Republican candidates got shellacked in suburban districts, pulling in lower vote totals than Trump did last November.
"What happened in New Jersey and Virginia, it shows that American voters aren't afraid to change course when something isn't working out for them," Craig said.
Lewis has represented the rolling hills, sprawling suburbs and red brick downtowns of the Second Congressional District for almost a year. Trump carried his district by a single percentage point — almost as narrow as the margin of victory between Lewis and Craig.
"It is a tough swing district, no question about it," said Lewis, who has shown up near the top of lists of the most vulnerable incumbents in the House nationwide.
Lewis, a former conservative talk radio host whose politics skew Libertarian, votes with the president most of the time, but has made a conscious effort to work across the aisle. Last week, Lewis and Rep. Bobby Scott, a liberal Democrat from Virginia, presented criminal justice reform legislation that would sharply reduce federal prison populations by focusing jail time on violent offenders, rather than offenses like drug crimes.
"This is, if you will, a blow against the party establishment — both parties," Lewis said. "People are looking for someone that says 'My guideposts aren't going to be my Democrat Party, my Republican Party. My guideposts are going to be what I believe.' Sometimes, that'll be with Republicans — most of the time, for me — sometimes it'll be with Bobby Scott."
Craig, a former medical device company executive and mother of four, said Trump's win last year has changed the mood on the campaign trail in her second go as a candidate. This time, she said, she's been greeted by a network of activists who parlayed their dismay over Trump's election into action.
In New Prague, in the more conservative southwestern edge of the district, Craig walked into a room a few weeks ago and found more than 100 members of the New Prague Community Action Network — a group that started with a few women commiserating over coffee after the election and grew from there — waiting to hear what she had to say.
"I joked to the group, I didn't know there were 100 Democrats down here in this part of the district," Craig said. "People are up, they're off the sidelines, they're enthusiastic. They want to know 'How can I get this country back on track?' "
In Minnesota, where Trump carried all but nine of the state's counties and came within a few percentage points of winning the popular vote, Democrats rejoiced in what they saw as a swift, savage backlash against the president, his policies and his fellow Republican incumbents.
"With the huge wins in Virginia, New Jersey and across the country this week, we got a glimpse of what's possible in 2018: a Democratic wave," Minnesota DFL Chairman Ken Martin wrote in a fundraising letter aimed at unseating Lewis. "Last year, we fell short of picking up an open congressional seat in Minnesota's Second District by just two points. Now with Trump in the White House, we have the momentum to not only win that seat, but take back Congress and deal a devastating blow to Trump's agenda."
The question is whether elections a thousand miles away are a sign of things to come in Minnesota next year.
A new president's party almost always loses seats in Congress in the next midterms. Democrats would need to flip 24 seats to regain the U.S. House majority. That makes the Third Congressional District, mostly composed of suburban Hennepin and Carver counties, a tempting target. Hillary Clinton carried the Third District last year.
Rep. Erik Paulsen, seeking a sixth term as a Republican representing a DFL-tilting district, said late last week that he's feeling "optimistic" about the GOP agenda in Washington. He sits on the influential House Ways and Means Committee, which just passed a $1.5 trillion package of tax cuts and tax code tweaks. Both Paulsen and Lewis view the tax bill as the key to winning back restive voters next November.
"I'm not sure how New Jersey and Virginia's elections relate to Minnesota's races a year from now," Paulsen said. "But what I think resonates everywhere is that people want to see things get done and people are fed up with dysfunction in Washington."
Back home in the district last Thursday, Paulsen talked up tax cuts. The House is preparing for a floor vote on the bill later this week.
"I just came from a veterans ceremony at St. Hubert's, and right afterward I had four veterans bring up 'Get that tax bill through,' " Paulsen said.
His Democratic opponents read a completely different message from last week's election outcome.
"The results please me and excite me and give me optimism," said Dean Phillips, a deep-pocketed Democratic businessman who has raised $800,000 so far for his challenge against Paulsen — a prodigious fundraiser himself, who has raised double that sum already this year.
As the election results rolled in from Virginia and New Jersey, Phillips said, "everybody talked about how just a small, small part of the collective anxiety that everybody was feeling was reduced."
The string of victories for political newcomers in other states gave a boost to other Third District candidates hoping their own message will break through to the Democratic base.
"There's this misnomer that we're trying to chase this mythical unicorn, this Republican swing voter, and we run to the middle, and we have for several cycles," said Adam Jennings, a Minnesota National Guard veteran with a background in finance and a platform full of progressive wish-list items like expanding Medicare health coverage to all Americans. "It doesn't give voters a real clear choice."