Democrat Keith Ellison holds a narrow lead over Republican Doug Wardlow in the Minnesota attorney general’s race with many voters still undecided, according to a new Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll.
Across the state, 41 percent of voters said they would vote for Ellison, a U.S. congressman. Another 36 percent said they would pick Wardlow, a lawyer and former state representative. However, 18 percent of poll respondents had not yet decided how they would vote on Nov. 6.
Ellison is widely known — 80 percent of people said they recognized his name — but is a divisive candidate. Twenty percent had a favorable opinion of him, 31 percent view him unfavorably and 29 percent were neutral.
People were also split on whether they believe an allegation of domestic abuse by Ellison’s former girlfriend. The majority, 57 percent, were unsure about the accusation, which Ellison has denied.
Meanwhile, less than a third of respondents recognized Wardlow’s name, and among those who did, the majority had a neutral opinion of the candidate. Nonetheless, in the counties of the Twin Cities excluding Hennepin and Ramsey, and in northern Minnesota, more voters said they want Wardlow to become the state’s next chief legal officer. And in southern Minnesota, Ellison and Wardlow tied with 36 percent support for each.
Ellison’s stronghold is Hennepin and Ramsey counties. In those areas, 52 percent backed him and 29 percent said they want Wardlow to win.
Overall, 800 likely voters participated in the Minnesota Poll conducted Sept. 10-12. Of those, 37 percent were Democrats, 31 percent Republicans and 32 percent independents. The poll’s margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Nancy Johnson of Lonsdale, who participated in the poll, said she wants someone in the Attorney General’s Office who will stand up to President Donald Trump’s policies, such as banning immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries and separating families attempting to immigrate at the U.S.-Mexico border. Ellison has said he would challenge the president on such issues if elected.
“I’m not happy about a number of the things Trump has done. And I would want my state attorney general to be there to try to go back on some of the things that I don’t think are appropriate, nor do I think are legal,” she said.
Johnson, who called herself a retired farm wife, has been an advocate at the State Capitol for traffic safety laws after a drunken driver killed her daughter. She said she spoke with Ellison about a bill when he was a state representative, and she has a positive impression of him from that time.
She is unsure what to believe about the allegation against Ellison. It concerns her but likely will not change her vote, Johnson said. She is leaning toward Ellison but said she wants to do more research on each of the candidates’ legal backgrounds.
Overall, significantly more women said they are behind Ellison, while Wardlow had a lead among male voters. Ellison holds a huge lead among voters between 18 and 34, while the two candidates are nearly tied with voters between 35 and 49. Wardlow has small leads with voters 50 and older.
Grady Rostberg, a 79-year-old retired coach and high school teacher from Hutchinson, said he would be voting for Wardlow, even though he doesn’t know much about him. A Republican, Rostberg said he dislikes Ellison’s past ties to the Nation of Islam and believes Ellison would politicize the Attorney General’s Office, which he does not want.
“He’s a left-leaning liberal, and I think that’s the worst thing that could happen to this country,” Rostberg said.
Ellison lives in Minneapolis and has represented Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District, which includes Minneapolis and many surrounding suburbs, since 2007. Before that, he served in the Legislature and spent 16 years as an attorney, including five years running the Legal Rights Center.
For the past few years, Wardlow has worked as legal counsel at the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian nonprofit. He previously did international trade litigation, worked in a variety of other practice areas and spent one term, from 2011 to 2013, representing his hometown of Eagan in the state House.
Wardlow is trying to position himself as the less partisan candidate — despite his past work for a conservative organization and in the Legislature — and has said the attorney general’s job should not be political.
That message has failed to attract voters from across the aisle, the poll shows. Not one Democrat said they would cross party lines to back Wardlow, while 2 percent of Republicans said they were opting for Ellison. But Wardlow’s message appears to be resonating with independents, with whom he has a 9-point lead.
In addition to Wardlow and Ellison, Noah Johnson is running as a candidate for the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party. He was backed by 5 percent of poll respondents.
In August, Ellison easily won the DFL primary for attorney general shortly after his ex-girlfriend, Karen Monahan, said he abused her in 2016. She said that during a fight he pulled her by the legs and feet while she was lying on a bed. Monahan has said there is a video of the incident, but she has not shared it.
Of the poll participants, 21 percent said they believe Monahan and 22 percent said they do not. The rest were unsure. Just 5 percent of Democrats said they believe her, compared with 42 percent of Republicans.
More men than women said they believe the allegation, with 25 percent of men who participated in the poll saying they believe her and only 18 percent of women saying that.
“I believe that you shouldn’t be convicted just because somebody says something, but in this day and age if a person said that this happened you certainly need to look into it,” Rostberg said.