WASHINGTON - Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen has cemented his reputation as a go-to-guy in Congress for Minnesota's business community during his two terms in the House.
Democrat Brian Barnes, Paulsen's opponent in this fall's election, said the same can't be said for the communities the Republican represents in the Third District.
Barnes said Paulsen's conservative voting record on issues such as Medicare and rape are out of touch with his politically moderate, but evolving, district -- which covers western Hennepin County, eastern Carver County and portions of southwestern Anoka County.
Paulsen discounts the attacks as a distraction from his work on issues that he says constituents truly care about: Working to help the economy grow, reducing the national debt and tax reform.
"[Barnes] likes to focus on more extreme issues that the general electorate isn't focused on," Paulsen said.
As a pro-free trade, anti-regulation fiscal conservative who's championed the medical device industry on Capitol Hill, Paulsen has been a dependable ally of businesses.
Barnes, a sales and marketing manager for Columbus, Ind.-based engine maker Cummins Inc., is a first-time office seeker who served in the U.S. merchant marine and the U.S. Navy Reserve.
Paulsen said his efforts to work with both parties are evident, including legislation that would cut regulations and speed approval for potentially life-saving technology from the medical device industry. Barnes said the bills make sense, but that Paulsen has often supported corporate interests and millionaires at the expense of the middle class.
On the campaign trail, Barnes has called for shoring up education funding, protecting women's rights and refining the Affordable Care Act, the national health care reform law.
Paulsen is among the Republicans who have repeatedly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Critics of the law, which would collect a 2.3 percent tax on medical device sales, say it already has led to job cuts in Minnesota.
Paulsen and Barnes further diverge on the federal budget and social issues.
State Democrats say that Paulsen portrays himself as a moderate candidate, but that his voting record mirrors those of some of the most conservative members of Congress.
"The challenge in running against Erik Paulsen is that, while Paulsen consistently votes to the right of his moderate district and in fact votes with [U.S. Rep.] Michele Bachmann 92 percent of the time, he's very quiet about it," said state DFL spokeswoman Kate Monson.
But with the nation still recovering from a recession, it's hard to mount a campaign against an incumbent who's built a reputation as someone who's helped companies create and save jobs, said David Wasserman, who tracks congressional races for the Cook Political Report.
Departure from the middle
Republicans have held the Third Congressional District seat since 1961, but Barack Obama captured 53 percent of the region's vote in 2008. Republican Jim Ramstad represented the district from 1991 to 2009, carving out a career as a political moderate who occasionally turned against his own party's agenda.
When Ramstad, Paulsen's former boss, announced his retirement from Congress, national Democrats targeted the seat for takeover, but have backed away from that goal since Paulsen's win. In 2012, Barnes is the only Democratic challenger for a Minnesota U.S. House seat that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not promoted as a viable challenger.
In 2008, the DFL candidate in the Third District raised $2.7 million, nearly matching Paulsen dollar for dollar.
In this election cycle, Barnes had yet to reach $400,000 by the end of September. Overall, Paulsen holds a 15-to-1 fundraising advantage.
Unlike Paulsen, Barnes came to the race with no previous political experience and no established network of backers. He also has no political record, which has made it harder for Republicans to pin attacks on him.
Barnes has hammered Paulsen on his support of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's Medicare bill, which would have restructured the health insurance system for those 55 and younger with a voucher program.
Barnes, who supports abortion rights, also has questioned Paulsen's support of a bill that would ban federal funding for abortions with several exceptions including rape, incest and saving the mother's life.
Barnes' campaign said his most recent fundraising numbers show a steep rise in support, proof that voters are responding to his campaign.
"People are starting to realize how extreme [Paulsen's] voting record is," Barnes said. "He's willing to pick [the Republican Party] over his constituents."
Rick Weible, co-chair of the Third District Republican Party, defended Paulsen, who represented Eden Prairie for seven terms in the Minnesota House before his election to Congress.
"He represents his district appropriately," said Weible, who is also mayor of St. Bonifacius, on the western edge of the Third District. "He's a Republican. Of course, he's going to be a lot closer to Bachmann" than a liberal Democrat, he said.
In moderate districts, voters don't always expect moderate candidates, said Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor at American University in Washington, D.C.
"The voters don't necessarily have to share the same views as the candidate," Lawless said. Paulsen said his record in Congress is proof that he delivers for businesses and his constituents.
"I'm there to get stuff done," he said, adding that, above all, he wants a "secure and healthy economy."
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @CMitchellStrib