Redistricting has Kline on the offensive

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 22, 2012 - 7:12 AM

The congressman from 2nd District likely to face stiffer test.

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John Kline

Photo: Wallace, Tom, Star Tribune

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For a seat in Congress as allegedly safe as the Second District, an awful lot of troops are being massed for battle.

Republican John Kline has well over a million dollars on hand -- a large sum for him at this stage.

And the DFL on Saturday will weigh the merits of no fewer than three candidates with experience in elective office.

Is trouble brewing for a politician who has grown accustomed to demolishing each DFL wannabe a little bit more conclusively than the last?

"I suppose the chances are greater than in the last cycle, when the [Democrats] had problems even finding a candidate," said Carleton College political scientist Steve Schier. "They're clearly not having that problem now."

Candidates for endorsement include Kathleen Gaylord, a Dakota County commissioner and former mayor of South St. Paul; Mike Obermueller of Eagan, a former legislator; and Patrick Ganey, a member of the Northfield City Council.

Minnesota just two years ago witnessed the shocking defeat of a well-established congressman, Democrat James Oberstar, whose committee chairmanship involved access to hundreds of millions of dollars in federal earmarks.

Are there ingredients that could produce such a result in the redrawn Second District, which includes Dakota and Scott counties?

Most people are skeptical, but they do point to these ingredients:

Redistricting

Rapid population growth in Kline's district forced a shrinkage of his boundaries. Kline lost one of the state's most reliably Republican pieces of territory in the form of Carver County and took on some DFL-leaning ground in northern Dakota County.

"The district got some better demographics for us," said Obermueller, an attorney. "We have a popular president and a congressman whose voting record doesn't match the district very well, and so there's an opportunity here to take him out."

Schier cautions: "It's still a marginally Republican district, and not one that's easy for Democrats."

Earmarks

There's distance between Kline and even a lot of locally elected Republicans over the congressman's refusal to seek earmarks, in a growing area with lots of transportation needs.

That doesn't mean federal money hasn't flowed to the district: Rapid busways, for example, are on their way thanks to lots of federal money.

Even DFLers tread carefully on the earmarks issue, knowing many voters share Kline's distaste. But they will press the point using other words.

"I'm going to ask voters, what has John Kline done for you in his decade in office?" Ganey said. As a committee chairman, "He's powerful on paper, yet what have we seen him do for our district?"

Obermueller, by contrast, sounds almost Kline-esque in denouncing the earmarks process.

"Clearly we need earmark reform," he said, "the system now is ridiculous ... we need to target projects based on merit. But the fact he doesn't ask for them means money we're paying is spent somewhere else."

Disdain for incumbents

With the favorability ratings for members of Congress historically low, could an anti-incumbent wave sweep through?

"Voters of all political persuasions are fed up with elected officials who put partisanship ahead of progress," said Gaylord, who could not be reached for an interview, in a written statement when she announced her candidacy.

"I spent seven years in the Peace Corps, I ran a watershed partnership, and I've been raising money for Carleton College now for eight years," Ganey said. "My current job means asking for gifts from people who don't have to give them. All my work has involved effective communication and the ability to work with people."

Obermueller believes this point is important: "Congress is not very popular right now."

Hard right?

Obermueller's mention of a voting record that "doesn't match the district" is a signal of where the campaign is likely headed, in a year when House Republicans have been branded as obstructionist and extreme.

For years Democratic challengers have depicted Kline as a figure whose affable exterior conceals a Michele Bachmann-like voting record. Indeed, a rating service that the Kline camp accepts as authoritative, that of the National Journal, actually rates his 2011 votes as just a smidgen to the right of hers.

Schier agrees that Kline's soft-spoken, low-key persona helps him. "It's not a district that would enjoy a firebrand of either side, left or right," he said. "Bachmann would have trouble in this district."

Kline spokesman Troy Young declined to offer thoughts about the DFL field, but didn't disagree when it was put to him that his boss' early media visibility and war chest suggests he's taking the race very seriously.

Schier thinks he knows why.

"He is playing a prevent defense," football lingo for arranging defenders in such a way as to minimize the chances of a long pass. "He's trying to scare off quality challengers.

"This is a very important race for Kline, in which he hopes as much as anything to scare off quality challengers in the future. There are new boundaries and new hope for the DFL and it makes sense for him to devote a lot of time and resources to lock it down.

"Whoever gets the DFL endorsement has to really catch fire and raise a lot of money and do it quickly. Congress' low popularity could open the door for surprises. And there could be a big Democratic wave, though I don't see one yet. If either transpires ... he could have a battle on his hands."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

  • KLINE'S WINNING STREAK

    The year, the opponent, the share of the vote that went Republican:

    2010 Shelley Madore 63%

    2008 Steve Sarvi 57%

    2006 Coleen Rowley 56%

    2004 Teresa Daly 56%

    2002 Bill Luther 53%

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