Four Minnesota Democrats are vying to take on two Republican members of the U.S. House in the Twin Cities area, hoping to test whether President Donald Trump has damaged the GOP’s chances in the suburbs.
This Saturday’s endorsing conventions in the Second and Third congressional districts should whittle the field of hopefuls down to one each, setting up general election contests that could tip the balance of power in Congress next year.
The races, along with several congressional contests in greater Minnesota, will be some of the most closely watched in the country this year. The incumbents, Reps. Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen, have attracted both first-time candidates — galvanized into politics by Trump’s victory — and a returning challenger who almost won one of the seats last time around.
In each district, DFL activists have a choice between high-profile and well-financed candidates, and progressive challengers running to their left.
In the Third District, largely composed of suburban Hennepin County, wealthy businessman Dean Phillips, who raised more than $1 million last year, squares off against Tonka Bay Council Member and National Guard veteran Adam Jennings. Whoever wins the party’s endorsement will take on five-termer Paulsen in a district won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 — and, if victorious, would become the first Democrat to represent the affluent, educated western suburbs since 1961.
Mood shift in the Second
In the Second District, which covers a swath of the southeastern metro and some rural areas and smaller towns to the south, high school civics teacher and football coach Jeff Erdmann is running a congressional campaign between his lesson plans, while former medical device company executive Angie Craig seeks a rematch against Lewis. Craig lost one of the closest elections in the country to Lewis in 2016.
“Democrats are fired up. They’re ready to show up,” said Craig, a mother of four whose campaign raised more than half a million dollars in the first four months of this year. “What they want is a representative who’s really focused on kitchen-table issues: How do you create jobs and opportunities for Minnesota families? How do you work toward health care that families can actually afford? How do we make sure we’re funding education?”
The mood in the district feels very different to Craig than it did in 2016, when she and Lewis ran for the same open seat — a race she lost by single percentage point. Hundreds of volunteers have signed up and showed up to campaign for her, she said. They’ve turned out in snowstorms and in the middle of Vikings games, and sometimes both.
“I thought to myself, ‘There’s no way anybody’s going to be there when I show up,’ ” Craig said, describing one district house party held in the middle of a storm and in the first half of a Vikings game. “But I made my way there and 60 people showed up in a snowstorm, just to hear me talk about how we’re going to beat Jason Lewis.”
Erdmann positions himself as the progressive in the race, stumping for single-payer health care and refusing to take corporate campaign donations even if it means getting out-fundraised 5-to-1 last year.
“As an American government teacher, I love that. The whole purpose of being in the House of Representatives initially was to have people who lived the day-to-day type of life that people experienced, so they could understand the concerns they’re facing. I think we’ve gotten away from that,” said Erdmann, a father of three and the longtime head football coach at Rosemount High School. “I am a middle-class person. Our family is. We’re struggling with college payments, things that regular folks are going through. We can relate to them. We don’t have to pretend.”
Erdmann said he launched his campaign with the hope of connecting with the 40,000 people in the Second District who either voted for a third party or skipped choosing either of the congressional candidates on the ballot in 2016.
“That’s 10 percent of the voters. People are frustrated with the two political parties because corporate influence in both parties is so strong,” he said. “To be able to offer a candidate who is not connected to that? That’s why we’re the best opportunity to beat Jason Lewis.”
Battle for the Third
Minnesota is election ground zero this year. The governor’s seat and two U.S. Senate seats are up for grabs, and at least four of the state’s eight congressional seats could be in play. But few will be more closely watched than the battle for the Third, where Paulsen has reliably beat back one Democratic challenger after another even as the district has trended blue in presidential elections.
“I’m actually more hopeful and optimistic, both for our race [and for] our country and state, than I was a year ago when I started this endeavor,” said Phillips, who built his family fortune on liquor and gelato and spent the winter cruising the district in a coffee truck and campaigning out of an icehouse. “I’ve had a great epiphany, and that is that there is a whole lot more that does unify us than divides us.”
Phillips is stumping on a platform he believes everyone in the district could get behind.
“Everybody wants world-class public schools. Everybody wants cleaner air and cleaner water,” he said. “Everybody wants safe neighborhoods and a safe country. Everybody wants to see reductions in gun violence. Everybody wants affordable health care. … I’m not just talking with delegates and Democrats. I spend a lot of time with Republicans, Independents and Libertarians, engaging in the same conversations.”
Jennings comes to the race looking for a fight. He supports single-payer “Medicare for All” health care proposals and a $15 hour federal minimum wage.
“I think I’m a good fit for the district. I’m a person who has had one foot in the factory floor and one foot in the boardroom,” said Jennings, who worked as an autoworker, enlisted in the National Guard after the Sept. 11 attacks, eventually earned an MBA and moved on to a career in finance.
“This district is ready for a progressive candidate. Cycle after cycle, we continually run to the center,” he said, pointing to the 2016 campaign, when the Democratic challenger ran on the slogan “Uniting the Middle” and lost, even as Clinton won the district. “We’re not exciting our base to come out.”