The race for an open congressional seat in the western suburbs is one of the hottest in the country, and the most intense the district has seen in decades.
(left to right) As ISAIAH representatives Jason Wittak and Roxanne Smith listened, 3rd District Congressional Candidate David Dillon made a point during a meeting with the group that represents over 100 Twin Cities Christian Churches. The group met with Dillon at the Perkins in Golden Valley.
As the candidates faced off, the debate got heated.
DFLer Ashwin Madia took aim at a vote by Republican state Rep. Erik Paulsen that would have let public schools use creationism and intelligent design to rebut evolution and another supporting a state constitutional ban on gay marriage.
Paulsen angrily accused Madia of taking his votes out of context, including in "some nasty ads that were being proposed by him and his allies on television and in the mail."
At one point, the third participant at the debate in Minnetonka, David Dillon of the Independence Party, jumped in: "The plain fact of the matter is that Erik has come out of the right wing of the Republican Party and it's part of why I'm not a Republican anymore."
Welcome to the race for Congress in Minnesota's Third District, an arc of Minneapolis suburbs stretching from Coon Rapids in the north to Bloomington in the south. Represented for decades by mild-mannered moderates, the district is being roiled this autumn by one of the most fiercely contested House races in the country, as candidates vie for a rare open seat being vacated by nine-term Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn.
Independent ads have attacked Paulsen so harshly that Madia has disavowed them. DFLers have accused GOP officials of using racial code words against Madia, whose family hails from India. There have been lesser disputes and apologies over lawn sign pilfering.
It is not the kind of contest voters are used to in the lake-bejeweled west-suburban district where Ramstad, a centrist who is retiring after nine terms, won re-election handily over nearly two decades and did not condone negative ads.
Former Hennepin County Commissioner Mary Tambornino, a moderate Republican who represented a portion of the district, admits to being torn by the tenor of the contest and the quality of the candidates.
"I can honestly say that no one is sticking out. Come Election Day I will be going to vote with no preconceived notion," she said.
Paulsen and Madia are both running feverishly toward the middle, pledging to be mavericks cut in the mold of Ramstad, who has served as a fiscal conservative and social liberal.
The district hasn't elected a Democrat since 1961, but is widely seen as trending more liberal.
First-time office-seeker Madia, the Democrat, is an attorney and Iraq war veteran who has accepted tens of thousands of dollars of donations from left-leaning political committees like MoveOn.org and Nancy Pelosi's PAC to the Future.
Yet Madia emphasizes that he was once a Republican who voted for George W. Bush in 2000.
Paulsen, the Republican, is a seven-term member of the Minnesota House of Representatives. The one-time majority leader was a staunch supporter of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's no-new-taxes pledge and voted to prohibit using taxpayer money for stem cell research at the University of Minnesota.
Added to the mix is the IP's Dillon, who says the two-party system is broken and points to his two opponents as prime examples.
Testing the comfort zone
On their TVs and in the mailboxes, the comfort level of Third District voters is being tested.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which has directly contributed more than $48,000 to the Madia campaign, has independently run TV ads claiming Paulsen voted against veterans benefits while supporting funding for a golf course, at best a strained interpretation of a vote Paulsen took in 2003 on an obscure amendment -- along with many Democrats.
The DCCC also has mailed brochures suggesting Paulsen has accepted campaign contributions from a fundraiser at a Las Vegas strip club that was sponsored by a Texas congressman. While Paulsen has accepted $5,000 from the PAC, there is no way of knowing if that money came from the fundraiser.
Paulsen's campaign said he has never been to Las Vegas or to any strip club, as the mailing implies. Madia has disavowed any connection to the DCCC efforts and said federal law prohibits him from even talking to the organization about them.
"I wish there was something I could do about them but there's not," Madia said. "They are not coming from me. I'm not paying for them."
Meanwhile, a Paulsen surrogate, state Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Minn., took the podium at a news conference last week to question Madia's ties to the district because, among other things, he has not raised a family there or paid a mortgage or gone to a PTA meeting.
Madia, who graduated from high school in the district, is a bachelor and rents an apartment in Plymouth. He listed his parents' Plymouth address while he was in the Marines and deployed to Iraq.
State GOP chairman Ron Carey also recently urged voters to examine "the demographic standpoint" of the candidates to determine which one to vote for.
DFL Party chair Brian Melendez said Carey and Michel's use of "loaded code words" injected race into the campaign. Madia's parents emigrated from India, and Paulsen is white.
Carey denied there were any racial or ethnic undertones to his comments. "I bristle at the insinuation that that was what was trying to be said," he said. "We're simply talking résumé. Period."
Shifts in the district?
The Third District is a sprawling monument to the hopes -- and anxieties -- of the suburban dream. By and large its households are high income and well-educated, and turn out to vote.
Bill Morris, president of Decision Resources, a polling data firm that has done work for Ramstad over the years, said surveys in the district have shown a political shift toward Democrats, mostly Republicans switching parties rather than an influx of new constituents.
In places such as Edina and Minnetonka, the defections are particularly high among women who identify themselves as more liberal on social issues such as abortion, gay rights, and gun control, he said.
In a SurveyUSA Poll of likely voters taken in early September, Paulsen edged Madia 44 to 41 percent, within the margin of sampling error. Paulsen led among men and Madia led among women. Moderates broke toward Madia by a 3-to-2 margin.
Tax policy, foreign policy
Beyond their differences on social issues, nothing so clearly distinguishes the three candidates as tax policy. Madia favors allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for people making over $250,000. Paulsen supports retaining the cuts across the board. Dillon, who has lugged in the entire U.S. tax code at campaign appearances, to dramatize its complexity, suggests closing loopholes.
During recent debates, Paulsen has criticized Madia for, he says, failing to recognize that Iran is a potential threat to the U.S. and Israel, an issue of particular interest to the district's sizable number of Jewish voters.
All three support getting out of Iraq, on various timetables.
Madia and Paulsen said they would have voted for the Wall Street bailout proposal that Congress passed last week. Dillon would have urged Congress to hold off voting.
At a Paulsen fundraiser in Minnetonka recently, host Todd Gurstel said the fact that Paulsen had legislative experience led him to become involved for the first time in a political campaign.
"This isn't the time to have someone in office who doesn't know how things work," said Gurstel, an attorney who often called on Ramstad.
Despite the intensity of the campaign, state Sen. Terri Bonoff, who ran against Madia for the DFL endorsement, said other races in the state may overwhelm even the most engaged district voters.
"The noise on the Senate and the presidential race is so loud that it's very difficult for people to understand who these people are," she said. "It's difficult to break through the clutter."
Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636