WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis, facing renewed criticism over remarks about women and minorities from his previous career as a conservative talk radio host, is headed into a tough battle to hold onto his Minnesota congressional seat in a political climate stirred up by the MeToo movement.
The one-term Republican from Minnesota's Second Congressional District is again running against Democrat Angie Craig, in what's expected to be among the most competitive U.S. House races in the country. In recent weeks, CNN has aired several reports about some questionable remarks Lewis made about women and blacks.
Lewis, who has declined interview requests to talk about CNN's latest reports, responded with the same explanation he offered in 2016 when similar comments surfaced: that hosting a political radio show required a provocative approach.
"CNN is free to focus on past rhetoric instead of Congressman Lewis' record in Congress, and they will no doubt continue to ignore the substance of the arguments, but it does little to add to the debate," Becky Alery, who is managing Lewis's re-election campaign, said in a statement.
Craig, who lost narrowly to Lewis in 2016, called Lewis' words offensive but said her campaign would focus more on his record in Congress.
"I obviously don't believe that comments like these represent Minnesota voters' values, but that's up to the voters to decide," Craig said.
Among the most recently unearthed comments, one excerpt found Lewis openly contemplating the use of the word "slut" to describe women.
"Now, are we beyond the days when a woman can behave as a slut, but you can't call her a slut?" Lewis said on his show in 2012.
While Alery called the clips old news and an attempt to gin up outrage, Democrats and their allies see a legitimate question about the kind of values Lewis brings to Congress.
"He's made a lot of deeply offensive comments about women and minorities and many others and that can absolutely drive up support for a campaign looking to unseat him," said Maeve Coyle, deputy director of communications for Emily's List, a D.C. organization that backs Democratic women candidates who are abortion rights advocates. "And I think right now we're seeing so much momentum and hunger for new voices and a more representative Congress, and with these comments Jason Lewis makes, it's clear that he's only willing to fight for constituents that look exactly like him."
The Second District, which includes southeastern Twin Cities suburbs and several smaller cities to the south, is a top target of Democrats as they try to take back the U.S. House. Lewis prevailed over Craig by just 1.8 percentage points in 2016.
Hamline University political science Prof. David Schultz said Craig would only need to bring out several thousand more women to win this time. "All the story has to do is resonate with a very small number of voters in such a close election," he said.
In 2012, Lewis said that blacks had fought hard alongside a number of whites so "they could take care of themselves and not be told what to do. Now you've got the modern welfare state that tells black folks and Hispanic folks and poor white folks: 'Don't worry. We'll take care of you.' What is the difference? You've substituted one plantation for another."
Lewis has reported threats against him and his daughters since news stories have run about his remarks. He also recently wrote a piece for Fox News saying he'd never experienced a more toxic environment for free speech than now. His campaign pointed to a commentator who wrote a profanity-laced post on his Facebook page, wishing that his family would die.
While he isn't as visible on women's issues, Lewis has made criminal justice reform a top priority of his first term and has spoken out about how the system unfairly targets people of color.
Craig is taking a broader view of Lewis' comments.
"His words are offensive, but frankly I'm even more offended by the votes he's taken that reflect these beliefs," Craig said.
She cited votes to reduce insurance protections for people with pre-existing conditions, his opposition to abortion and votes to defund Planned Parenthood, and support of a tax bill that she called a giveaway to large corporations.
Craig said she's seen an uptick in online contributions since CNN reported on his radio comments.
But Lloyd Cheney, chairman of the Second Congressional District GOP, said there are just as many women supporting Republican candidates.
"When you're on the radio, it's a different world than politics. ... Jason did a lot of devil's advocate stuff on the radio," Cheney said. Janet Beihoffer, a member of the Republican National Committee who lives in Lewis' district, thinks the newest round of revelations will get little traction.
"Jason has done so much for our district and people trust him," she said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan also drew a contrast between Lewis' two careers when reporters questioned him about the latest CNN report.
"He was a shock jock; that was his job at the time," Ryan said in July. "I've seen some of these comments. And I obviously don't support these comments. But the Jason Lewis I know here ... has been nothing but an exemplary congressman who represents his constituents well."
Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University who has researched talk radio, said he thinks Lewis should have been more apologetic when some of his more offensive comments began to surface in 2016. Still, he believes that Lewis the radio talker was following an established template.
"They're calculated — it's built into the business model of the industry," Berry said. "You don't attract listeners on talk radio by being thoughtful and measured and calm. Instead, you attract listeners when you're bombastic and outrageous and vulgar."