Angie Craig lost by less than 7,000 votes when she ran against Republican Rep. Jason Lewis for Congress two years ago, and the DFLer now mounting a rematch said she quickly decided to talk more to voters — and not just Democrats — to see what she'd missed.
"In 2016, we weren't recognizing that people's wages weren't rising, incomes weren't going up, prescription costs were going up, health care costs kept going up," Craig said in an interview. "I tried to do a whole lot more listening in this election cycle."
A former health care executive, Craig this year hopes to win over enough voters in the Second Congressional District to defeat Lewis, now a first-term congressman who has been touting his votes to cut federal taxes and efforts to reform the criminal justice system. The contest in the Second District, which includes southeastern Twin Cities suburbs and less populated areas to the south, is drawing national attention this year as Democrats seek to flip 24 GOP-held seats and gain control of the House.
The race has also drawn national headlines for Lewis' controversial statements from his earlier career as a conservative radio host about women, people of color and same-sex couples raising children. In 2013, Lewis questioned whether it was a "great idea" for children to grew up with two moms or two dads. Lewis has defended past comments as owing to the provocative nature of talk radio.
Craig, a married lesbian and mother of four, released an online video of her oldest son, Josh, saying that Lewis doesn't deserve to represent his family in Congress. "My mom had to fight for three years for the right to raise me and give me a loving home … Jason, I'm doing more than fine," he said in the video.
Split over health care
Still, Craig said it's even more important for Second District voters to examine Lewis' voting record. Craig is critical of his votes to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, defund Planned Parenthood and enact a tax code overhaul that she described as a giveaway to big corporations.
"I think his record on health care is terrible," Craig said. "I think he's talked a lot, but his actions have shown who he is as a member of Congress, and that doesn't reflect the majority of voters in the Second District."
Lewis has sought to portray Craig as a big-money hypocrite. She joined St. Jude Medical as vice president of communications in 2005, and left the Fortune 500 company after it was purchased by Abbott Laboratories in 2017. Craig received $3 million from St. Jude last year — she stepped down in February 2017 — that was a combination of salary, stock, stock options that vested when the company was sold, and deferred compensation from a company savings plan that she contributed to for years.
When Craig tweeted that executive pay is skyrocketing while worker pay remains flat, the Lewis campaign noted that after St. Jude laid off 300 employees in 2013 as part of a corporate reorganization, Craig shifted to a new job as vice president of global human resources. Executives cited the medical device tax as one of the reasons for downsizing, and Lewis claimed that Craig greatly benefited from the buyout of St. Jude by Abbott Laboratories several years later.
"They say actions speak louder than words, and it seems as though Craig was fine with benefiting from rising executive pay when it went to her bank account, even while hundreds of working families across the country lost their jobs," Lewis said in a statement.
During her first run for Congress, Craig was the largest recipient of campaign contributions from the medical device industry aside from Hillary Clinton. She's since invested in a small startup company in St. Paul and is now running for office full-time.
On the campaign trail, Craig highlights her childhood. She was raised by a single mother in a mobile home park in Arkansas, where the family lacked access to health care.
At a recent forum on agriculture at Minnesota Farmfest, Craig voiced sympathy for farmers enduring low commodities prices and a trade war. She said the U.S. should go after China but that you can't negotiate trade on Twitter, a reference to President Donald Trump.
Craig later conveyed that she's more focused on Lewis than Trump, and she's far less vocal about the president than DFL candidates in some other congressional races. Trump narrowly beat Clinton in the Second in 2016, by a margin similar to Lewis' win over Craig.
Craig has eschewed the progressive agenda of Medicare for all, in favor of proposing that people be allowed to buy into Medicare. She suggested that health insurance costs could be lowered if big health care and pharmaceutical companies had more competition.
"I'm going to run on what I believe is the right thing to do, not necessarily a party platform or finger in the wind," Craig said.
She has also advocated for one of Lewis' major issues: investing more in vocational and technical education. Lewis was involved in the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, successfully pushing for expanded dual-enrollment opportunities for high school students. Trump signed it into law this summer.
"College is not right for every child, and we need to support those career choices," Craig said. She criticized the measure championed by Lewis, saying it didn't include the kind of funding needed to be truly effective.
'People are ... polarized'
While she outspent Lewis four to one during their first match, Craig said an internal campaign poll that year put her name recognition at 3 percent, while Lewis was at 50 percent thanks to his time on the radio.
"What we had was a whole lot of uphill work last cycle to essentially introduce ourselves to voters," Craig said.
Now that her name is better-known, Craig feels she has more time to talk about her positions with people in the district. Earlier in August, Craig visited neighborhood parties for National Night Out in Eagan, where she lives. As Craig approached the first block party, residents who were enjoying barbecue chicken on this warm evening quickly surrounded her.
A retiree named Paul Lostetter asked about Trump and lamented the country's political divisions: "People are just way too polarized," he said.
"I just think we've got to find a way to work together again," Craig replied. "We've got people there [in D.C.] who want to go too far one way and too far the other way."
As Craig approached the next neighborhood party, she wasn't sure she'd know anyone there. But host Jordan Schuetzle greeted her excitedly, saying he didn't like Lewis' politics, then picked up a microphone to urge partygoers to meet Craig. Schuetzle, who works in the tech industry and has served in the military, voiced concern about having one party control all three branches of government.
"I'm a middle-of-the-road guy and I don't like what's become of the Republican Party," Schuetzle said. "I think we need a balanced approach and some people who aren't necessarily bound to their party to try to set America on a right path."