Former U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis embraced President Donald Trump’s policies as he announced plans to challenge Democratic Sen. Tina Smith in the 2020 election.
“Let the battle begin,” the Republican said at the GOP’s State Fair booth Thursday.
He called the Senate “the last firewall for freedom” in the face of liberals like U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and the other three members of the progressive “Squad” of congressional Democrats.
Pressed by journalists about his support for Trump, Lewis suggested that Smith should be asked, “Here’s what the Squad said today. What do you think about that?”
Lewis said he won’t distance himself from Trump’s positions on the economy, immigrants and other issues. “I have a hard time disagreeing with much of it,” he said.
Some of the president’s political aides are advising Lewis’ campaign, and he said Trump plans to go “all in” on competing in Minnesota.
Smith has been “working hard for the people of Minnesota, taking on powerful special interests and working across the aisle to get things done,” said campaign manager Ryan Furlong. He said Smith has fought “to protect health coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, standing up to the big drug companies to lower prescription drug prices [and] making sure young people have the skills they need to fill high-demand jobs.”
DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said in a statement that Lewis is Trump’s “hand-picked” candidate. “Minnesota voters will reject this failed attempt at a second act,” Martin said.
State Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan called Lewis “the best chance we’ve had in decades” to win statewide.
Lewis, 63, served one term in the U.S. House representing the Second District, which stretches southeast from St. Paul and includes much of suburban Dakota County.
Angie Craig beat him last November, 53% to 47%, after losing to him in 2016. Her victory was part of a national Democratic surge that returned the party to control of the U.S. House and was seen as a repudiation of Trump.
Trump narrowly carried the district in 2016. It’s the sort of “swing” area where the 2018 outcome was largely determined by suburban women and will be contested again in 2020. Lewis had considered another rematch with Craig.
Smith was appointed to the Senate in January 2018 to complete the term of Sen. Al Franken, who resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct. She handily defeated state Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point, in last November’s special election, collecting 53% of votes to Housley’s 42%. Smith also carried the Second District, 50% to 45%.
Housley announced last month that she wouldn’t challenge Smith again.
Emily Hartigan-Stein, a 25-year-old Marine veteran from Shoreview, came to hear Lewis outline his plans. “He’s honest. He’s just like Trump,” she said. “He doesn’t take any [nonsense].”
Jeff Schuette, Second Congressional District GOP chairman, said Lewis should be able to capture votes in critical suburban areas, and his wide name recognition will be an advantage.
Smith “doesn’t have quite the incumbent armor,” said Schuette, 55, of Eagan.
A Smith-Lewis race would offer stark contrasts in political stances and views of the Trump presidency. According to vote tracking on the politics website FiveThirtyEight, during Lewis’ two-year term he voted with Trump 90% of the time; Smith’s current score is 24.5%.
The two candidates also have had disparate career paths. Before then-Gov. Mark Dayton sent Smith to Washington, she was his lieutenant governor and chief of staff. She also had been chief of staff to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.
Smith will speak at the fair’s 4-H beef championship show on Friday.
Lewis lost a run for Congress in 1990 in Colorado and became a radio show host and conservative author and commentator. His radio program, based mostly in Minnesota, was syndicated nationally, and he became a frequent guest host on Rush Limbaugh’s show — a gig he returned to after losing his re-election campaign.
He now contributes brief commentaries called “MN Moments” on Minneapolis-based KTLK-AM. On an episode posted Aug. 15, he referred to Smith as the state’s “accidental senator” and called her “arguably the most liberal [senator] in the country.”
Opinions offered by Lewis during his years on the air surfaced in his campaigns. In 2018, CNN unearthed audio of his multiple disparaging comments about women. A Lewis aide said that “it was his job to be provocative” on the radio.
During his 2018 run, Lewis often spoke about his votes for Republican tax cuts, efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and changes to the juvenile justice system.
Lewis was born in Waterloo, Iowa, and has degrees from the University of Colorado, Denver, and the University of Northern Iowa.