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Heavily outfinanced and attacked for being a career politician in an election year of change, Republican Erik Paulsen nevertheless performed strongly in nearly every part of the western Twin Cities suburbs on Tuesday to win Minnesota's Third Congressional District.
Democratic opponent Ashwin Madia, an Iraq war veteran, conceded at about 12:30 a.m. after trailing throughout the evening in the race for the seat held by retiring U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad. Independence Party candidate David Dillon won double-digit support, finishing strongly in portions of the district where Madia needed to do well. Madia acknowledged the role of ticket-splitting in his speech, saying afterward the vote reflected voters' fatigue with "hyper negativity and partisanship."
Speaking to supporters after Madia conceded, Paulsen praised his opponents, saluting "their effort and their patriotism." And he said he had a message to all voters in the district: "We have serious problems in this country. I pledge to work for all of you."
Paulsen, a seven-term member of the Minnesota House of Representatives and a onetime House majority leader, out-performed Madia in nearly every portion of the district, Minnesota's most prosperous. That included districts where Madia expected to do well, such as Minnetonka and Edina.
"It was clear the voters were hungry for change and they saw Erik Paulsen as the answer to that," Madia said. "I hope that Erik Paulsen continues the tradition of Jim Ramstad and represents the district in a moderate, bipartisan nature."
Dillon took no solace in his role, saying he was disappointed in his finish.
"This party is going to have to fight its way up from being the Rodney Dangerfield party," he said, referring to the comedian whose famous tagline was that he "got no respect."
The race to replace Ramstad attracted big-buck outside influences, even though voters in the district have sent a Republican to Congress in every election cycle since 1961.
Madia and Paulsen performed near equally in fundraising, with Paulsen raising $2.4 million to Madia's $2.3 million. In the final weeks of the campaign Paulsen had slightly more cash on hand for last-minute mailings and media buys.
But the big difference -- and big influence -- came from outside groups, where Paulsen and his supporters were outspent by an almost 4-1 ratio.
From August through Nov. 1, outside groups spent more than $3.5 million on the race, with more than $1.35 million spent attacking Paulsen, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission reports. The bulk of that money came from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. One mailing wrongfully suggested that Paulsen attended a Las Vegas strip club fundraiser, and pictured him coming out from behind a curtain.
Led primarily by the cash-strapped National Republican Congressional Committee, Madia's opponents spent about $975,000 attacking him during the same period. They suggested that he wanted to raise taxes, and tagged him as a flip-flopper as he maneuvered to gain his party's endorsement and then presented himself as a Ramstad 2.0 moderate in the general election.
While polling suggested a consistently tight race, in many ways Paulsen, who once worked for Ramstad and was endorsed by him, suffered from the disadvantage of representing the incumbent party in an election year in which voters were hungry for change. Several votes he took during his seven terms in the Minnesota House came back to haunt him, even as he pushed a message of bipartisanship.
Madia won the DFL endorsement after a hard-fought battle with state Sen. Terri Bonoff, who had the traditional power structure and money behind her. Madia door-knocked and pushed his message of change to DFL delegates.
Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636