Democrats take pass on Paulsen challenge

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 11, 2014 - 11:49 PM

For the third election cycle in a row, they have failed to persuade big-name candidates to take on 3rd District congressman.

– Minnesota’s top Democratic political talent is once again passing on a chance to challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen.

Retired WCCO newsman Don Shelby spurned multiple offers, talk of former General Mills and Northwest Airlines executive James Lawrence running never materialized, and experienced state legislators are taking passes on a run.

With a little more than six months until Election Day, former Hennepin County DFL Chairwoman Sharon Sund is the lone Democrat to announce plans to take on Paulsen.

She launched her campaign against Paulsen in mid-March, a late start against an incumbent with formidable fundraising prowess and an established campaign infrastructure.

“For sure, we’re talking a David and Goliath story, but David had some things … going for him,” said Sund, who fell short of securing the DFL nomination in the 2012 race.

For the third election cycle in a row, national and state Democrats have failed to convince big-name candidates to run in the Third District, which covers much of the Minneapolis suburbs.

Voters in the district have split their political allegiance in recent years: They’ve sent Republicans to Congress for the past 50 years, but President Obama captured a majority of votes there in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.

But midterm elections for an unpopular president’s party are almost always bleak and Obama’s approval rating has dipped to a historic low in the state, according to the latest Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.

The political climate has likely scared off top-notch candidates in Paulsen’s district, said David Wasserman, who tracks congressional races for the Cook Political Report. The political handicapping service lists Paulsen’s seat as safely Republican.

“If Democrats had a chance at capturing the seat, it was probably in 2012 and they didn’t even come close,” Wasserman said.

Paulsen coasted to re-election, beating his Democratic opponent, Brian Barnes, by 16 percentage points.

State Sen. Teri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said the prospect of navigating a gridlocked Congress isn’t appealing to many potential candidates.

“I don’t think it’s about Erik Paulsen. I wouldn’t conclude that there isn’t a race out here by the fact that nobody’s jumped in,” said Bonoff, who ran for the seat in 2008 but didn’t win the party nomination.

Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin declined an interview request for this story.

“They’re just not able to recruit somebody credible to challenge him,” said Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey.

Paulsen has carved out a reputation on Capitol Hill as a business advocate and policy wonk.

This term, he’s concentrated on legislation to combat sex trafficking and repeal the Affordable Care Act’s medical device tax, both causes with bipartisan backing.

“Congressman Paulsen is focusing on issues important to his Minnesota constituents,” said campaign spokesman John Paul Yates.

A consistent conservative

Unlike his moderate mentor and predecessor Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad, he’s been a consistent if quieter conservative.

According to opencongress.org, a site that tracks congressional voting trends, Paulsen votes with his party 95 percent of the time.

“Before he could say, ‘I’m just like Jim Ramstad,’ ” Sund said. “Now we know he’s far from that.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, commissioned a poll during last year’s federal government shutdown that showed Paulsen trailing a generic, unidentified Democratic challenger.

Paulsen eventually broke ranks with GOP leaders to end the shutdown.

Despite their frequent criticism of Paulsen, the DCCC has not thrown its full support behind a Paulsen opponent since 2008, the year the seat came open with Ramstad’s retirement.

Paulsen had $1.7 million banked for his re-election bid at the end of 2013, the most of any Minnesota U.S. House candidate.

A report from the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution found that it took, on average, $1.6 million to win a House seat in 2012.

A small-business owner, Sund had roughly $500 remaining from her 2012 congressional run. She’ll release her latest campaign finance report before the Tuesday due date.

Downey, the state GOP chairman, doubts that Paulsen will take the race lightly despite his advantages.

“I don’t think he cares who the Democrats are putting up [against him]; he’s going to take it seriously.” Downey said.

Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell

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