ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota voters are far more familiar with former lieutenant governor and current Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith than Republican state Sen. Karin Housley as the pair compete for a Senate seat in the spotlight, according to a poll released Wednesday.
The first stage of the fight to finish former Sen. Al Franken's term in a special U.S. Senate race has been marked largely by both candidates trying to get their names in front of voters.
The Suffolk University poll shows Smith's stint as lieutenant governor and the last eight months as a U.S. senator have helped. Just 13 percent of voters had never heard of Smith, while more than 31 percent were unfamiliar with Housley.
Smith's profile got a jolt when she was chosen to replace Franken, who resigned in January after a slew of sexual harassment allegations. Housley, a two-term state senator and realtor, launched her own bid days after Franken announced his plans to leave the Senate in early June.
But Housley's gap in recognition with Smith also gives her plenty of room to catch up. The poll of 500 likely voters taken from Aug. 17 through Aug. 20 found Smith with a 7-point edge over Housley, with nearly 44 percent of support compared to Housley's 37 percent. Nearly 18 percent of voters surveyed were undecided. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percent.
The special election to finish Franken's term ending in 2020 was a surprise addition to an otherwise crowded ballot in Minnesota for the fall.
Voters are less torn in Minnesota governor's race, which crystallized last week when Democratic Rep. Tim Walz and Republican Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson won their primaries. Johnson, who lost to Gov. Mark Dayton in 2014, and Walz, a six-term congressman from southern Minnesota, are both known commodities heading into Election Day: less than 10 percent of voters hadn't heard of either candidate.
The poll shows a tight race after last week's primary, with 46 percent of voters supporting Walz and 41 percent of voters behind Johnson. Roughly 12 percent of Minnesota voters are undecided.
Johnson has put immigration issues front and center in his second try for Minnesota governor, calling to halt refugee resettlement and promising to block efforts to make Minnesota a so-called "sanctuary state." Walz, meanwhile, has said he'd sign legislation extending protections to immigrants living in the state illegally and limit law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration agencies.
When told that their state has historically been a top destination for refugees, Minnesota voters expressed mixed views on the size of the refugee population in Minnesota. And most voters ranked the economy, health care and other issues as higher priorities than immigration.
And perceptions of President Donald Trump loom large ahead of Minnesota's election, as Republican candidates up and down the ballot have positioned themselves as supporters of the president while Democrats have promised to counter him. Nearly 47 percent of voters said they would vote in November to change the direction Trump is leading the nation, while 32 percent said their vote would be to support the president.
Minnesota voters overwhelmingly support Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar as she seeks a third term, as 65 percent of voters view her favorably. She holds a 20-point edge over Republican challenger and state Rep. Jim Newberger.