Republican Kendall Qualls, mounting a challenge to freshman U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, pitched himself Monday as a political outsider with a life story and résumé that can deliver the suburban swing district back to the GOP.
Qualls, a 55-year-old health care IT executive and U.S. Army veteran from Medina, opened his campaign with a video statement calling for “true and tested leaders” to “change the conversation” in Washington. He vowed to bridge the nation’s worsening political divide, saying it inspired him to enter the race for the Third Congressional District.
“We don’t see our neighbors the same way we did four years ago,” the first-time candidate said in the video marking his formal entry into the 2020 race. “We don’t look past the political posts, the yard signs, the bumper stickers. We can change that.”
The Third District in the west metro was long a GOP stronghold, electing Republicans to Congress for nearly six decades. But political winds in suburban districts across the country blew against President Donald Trump’s GOP in 2018, flipping the district to the Democrats.
Hillary Clinton defeated Trump in the district by 9 percentage points in 2016. Phillips then trounced five-term GOP incumbent Erik Paulsen by an even wider margin in 2018, a midterm year widely seen as a referendum on the president. An unsolicited endorsement from Trump, offered via Twitter, was seen as a nail in the coffin for Paulsen, who sought to distance himself from the president on the campaign trail.
Like Qualls, Phillips introduced himself to voters in 2018 as a fresh face from the business community, and has since sought to carve out a moderate image in Congress, albeit as a Democrat. In a statement last week, Phillips’ campaign manager Richard Carlbom welcomed Qualls to the race, saying “everyone’s invited to this conversation and we look forward to each candidate sharing their views.”
In an interview Monday, Qualls said he believes his background and support for “common sense” solutions will appeal to voters beyond traditional partisan lines. But he also didn’t shy from voicing support for the president. The Medina Republican, who said he voted for Trump in 2016, gave the president high marks for his performance on the economy and his trade wars with China.
“If you look at the policies, take out the personalities, the economy is doing great,” Qualls said in an interview. “We can fix a lot of things with a strong economy.”
Qualls, a black Republican, declined to weigh in on the racially tinged feud between Trump and a number of minority U.S. House members, including Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland. On Trump’s recent tweets and comments attacking Omar, Qualls said he “can’t speak to [Trump’s] language ... or his meaning.” But he joined the president in criticizing Omar more broadly, saying he hopes to be a “counter voice” to “a lot of her depiction of her country.”
“When I hear Ilhan speak about our country, for a woman that’s in Congress for only eight months, coming here as a refugee and what the country’s done for her, the thing that gets me more than anything is, how about a little gratitude with that attitude,” he said. “That would be my quote to her and her conduct.”
Like Omar, however, Qualls is making his story of overcoming personal adversity a central part of his pitch to voters. His campaign announcement came in a three-minute biographical video recounting a hardscrabble childhood split between divorced parents in Harlem and Oklahoma, service as an active-duty officer in the U.S. Army and an decadeslong career as an executive in the health care and medical technology industries.
“America is still an exceptional place, full of potential,” Qualls says in the video. “A place where a poor black kid from Harlem can raise a family, be successful and give back to his community.”
In an interview, Qualls argued that those experiences, coupled with his leadership credentials, will resonate with voters and help him buck broader electoral trends. “I don’t think that voters in the Third District think of themselves and say, ‘I’m going to be a DFLer this time, or I’m going to be a Republican this time,’ ” he said. “They’re looking for candidates that represent their values, their concerns, and people they feel can be problem-solvers, can be solutions.”