Two potential opponents say the First District congressman's vote on health care makes him vulnerable.
WASHINGTON - Republicans aiming to win back control of Congress in November see bright prospects around places like Bill's Hardware in Minnesota Lake, where owner Georgia Neubauer wonders what the health care overhaul will mean to her business and the seven employees.
The store pays about $300 a month for each employee's health insurance, which Neubauer said is a heart-stopping sum in today's sluggish economy. "It just keeps going up," she said. "I don't know if it will affect my vote; I just need answers."
The answers that emerge in the coming months could bear heavily on a key congressional race in Minnesota's First District, a sprawling patch of rural heartland represented by DFLer Tim Walz.
The Mankato teacher-turned-politician was largely unknown until he ran as a centrist Democrat four years ago and knocked off a seemingly safe GOP incumbent.
Now a clutch of Republicans vying to take on Walz see the First District as their best chance to pick up a House seat in Minnesota during an election year that is expected to be tough for Democrats. They've all homed in on his vote for President Obama's health care overhaul, which the GOP portrays as creeping government expansion out of step with the southern Minnesota district that was long in Republican hands.
Walz, facing voters in his district last week, acknowledged that the Democrats haven't done a very good job of selling their health plan outside Washington.
There was, he said, "an arrogance that we were right on this, and of course it's going to work, and we know better. I think if anybody says that was a terrible job of messaging, I would say, 'yes, yes it was.'"
Walz also tried to address the mounting anger that he's seen in national protests and town hall meetings since last summer.
"I've said a lot of those emotions were legitimate," he said. "It was a false dichotomy, that if you were against reform you didn't care what happened to people. That's nonsense. They just didn't understand how we could save money on this by adding more people to the system, how it was going to impact them in terms of their premiums and their access to care."
Taking stock of what has been the most competitive congressional seat in Minnesota in recent years, Republican leaders, hoping to tap a vein of Tea Party discontent, have targeted Walz in their "Code Red" media blitz. Democrats and their labor allies have run TV ads thanking him for his vote.
"This is the kind of race that's going to be a test of which way the pendulum swings in November," said Joseph Kunkel, chairman of the Political Science Department at Minnesota State University, Mankato. "He could be vulnerable to a tide, if the tide was big enough. But the Republicans are going to need a good candidate."
With a GOP endorsing convention still a few weeks away, that remains to be seen. State Rep. Randy Demmer, assistant minority leader in the Minnesota House, and former State Rep. Allen Quist have garnered the most buzz so far.
While Republicans believe they have public opinion on their side, election experts say the GOP still has its work cut out in Walz's district. After knocking off six-term GOP incumbent Gil Gutknecht in 2006, helping Democrats win control of Congress, Walz was reelected in 2008 with a comfortable 62 percent of the vote.
"He can still afford to lose plenty of support in a year as Republican as this, and still win," said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Whether November produces another takeover of Congress, like the 1994 Republican wave that washed in Gutknecht, is another question.
"This district has shown its willingness to blow with the political winds," Wasserman said. "But it will be difficult for the Republicans to portray Walz as a creature of Washington or an uncompromising ideologue."
'It all goes together'
Walz was recently bolstered by a "centrist" rating in a National Journal study of 2009 congressional voting records. But like the rest of the Minnesota delegation -- and much of the rest of Congress -- Walz votes with his party about 90 percent of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly rankings.
That's an opening the Republicans will take, particularly in the wake of the hyper-partisan health care debate that produced a bill without a single Republican vote.
Demmer, perhaps the most high-profile Republican going after Walz's job, sees the Democrats' health plan as part of a broader "process of growth in government."
Among other GOP targets: Walz's support for Obama's economic stimulus program and cap-and-trade energy legislation to curb carbon emissions, which Republicans say is unpopular in farm country because it increases the costs of fuel and fertilizer.
"It all goes together," Demmer said. "It's not a single issue."
Yet burnishing Walz's bipartisan credentials was his 2008 vote against the unpopular Wall Street bailout. He was among 63 Democrats and 108 Republicans voting no, including Tea Party stalwart Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.
But Quist, a farmer and retired legislator, argues that Walz's position on health care opens a chink in his armor as a moderate Democrat. "People have figured him out," he said. "That's why he's in trouble."
Walz, for his part, believes the health care legislation has more support in his district than the Republicans -- and some national polls -- suggest.
His biggest ace-in-the-hole may be the influential Mayo Clinic, the world-renown medical provider and major Rochester employer.
"Where I may be unique in the country is because of that loud, overwhelming voice of Mayo," Walz said. "Their presence is always there."
Mayo lobbied hard against a government insurance plan known as the public option, and in favor of quality-of-care incentives for doctors and hospitals that are modeled after the clinic's own practices. While Mayo stopped short of endorsing the final bill, it put out a statement on the eve of the House vote calling it "an initial step toward ensuring quality, affordable health care for all Americans."
Another tipping point for Walz was an 11th hour administration agreement to reduce geographic disparities under Medicare that currently penalize states like Minnesota.
But in the end, it remains to be seen if the race comes down to the details of the health care bill or to the clashing philosophical perspectives on Main Street.
"I don't believe it's the role for government," said Don Kain, publisher of the Minnesota Lake Tribune, a weekly newspaper with a huge American flag hanging in the office. "We need less government."
But over at the Elbow Room, the famed burger joint in Albert Lea, 38-year-old cook Bob Neely said the bill was long overdue: "This health care program, it's about time the rich people have to start paying for the middle class."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.