U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen has tried to convince voters in his suburban battleground district that he is a solid Republican — just not a Donald Trump Republican.
Interviews with nearly two dozen voters around the district last week suggest that the four-term Republican from Eden Prairie may be succeeding at distancing himself from the controversial presidential nominee whose support among voters appears weaker in affluent suburbs like Paulsen’s district.
Trump and Paulsen “have nothing to do with each other,” said John Watters, 64, a retired finance manager from Minnetonka and a registered Republican. “Their records have nothing to do with each other. There’s no linkage.”
Democratic challenger state Sen. Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka and Democratic groups from Washington have worked relentlessly to tie Paulsen to Trump in a bid to flip a Republican-leaning district that stretches from Bloomington and Eden Prairie in the south to Maple Grove and Rogers in the north.
Along with hammering him over Trump, they say Paulsen’s conservative stances on social issues are out of sync with voters here.
DFL Party officials believe this year is their strongest chance yet at defeating Paulsen, encouraged by the district’s changing demographics and voters who preferred President Obama in the last election.
“Given the strength of Terri and her campaign, I feel like this is certainly the best opportunity we’ve had since Paulsen was first elected,” said DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin, adding that higher turnout for Democrats in presidential election years and Trump’s poor poll standings have made the race highly competitive.
Still, Martin concedes that Bonoff faces a big challenge.
“She’s got to raise her own name [identification] because a lot of people in the district still are getting to know her while at the same time making the case for people in the district to essentially fire their congressman,” Martin said. “It’s a heavy lift.”
Nearly $3 million worth of outside spending has flowed into the district during the current election cycle, according to federal campaign-finance data compiled by ProPublica. The bulk of that money has come from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has spent nearly $2.3 million against Paulsen, according to ProPublica.
Despite the infusion of outside cash, Real Clear Politics recently rated Minnesota’s Third as “leaning GOP,” citing a KSTP/Survey USA poll — the only independent poll conducted so far — that showed Paulsen leading by 11 points. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report on Friday also favored Paulsen to win.
Paulsen said he feels confident he can weather Trump’s sagging poll numbers and recent controversies, like the uproar from his final debate performance when he said he couldn’t guarantee he would honor the results of the election.
“From my perspective, in my race, I feel very good about where we are at,” Paulsen said in an interview. “I will run hard all the way to the finish. I’m not going to be outworked.”
For months, since it became clear Trump had clinched the GOP nomination for president, Republicans feared his unpopularity with well-educated voters could hurt incumbents like Paulsen, who represents a large swath of the western Twin Cities suburbs. Nearly half of voters here hold at least a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Willing to look past Trump
Despite strong opposition to Trump, many said in interviews last week that they do not plan to abandon Paulsen.
“I’m happy with my congressman,” said Lee Zanin, a 77-year-old retired stockbroker, adding: “I will not vote for Trump.”
Asked why he wouldn’t be voting for Trump, Zanin declined to elaborate and said simply: “Because I’m a Republican.”
Trump has seen his support plummet in recent weeks following the release of a tape where he is heard bragging about groping and kissing women. Dozens of congressional Republicans withdrew their support, including U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said he would no longer campaign with Trump and instead focus on retaining his majority. Trump has pledged an all-out war with the Republican establishment that has seemingly turned its back on him.
Paulsen, 51, has struck a cautious tone during his re-election campaign, saying for most of the summer that Trump would have to earn his vote. He had previously said he expected to vote for the GOP nominee, but after the lewd tape emerged, Paulsen said he would not be voting for Trump. On Friday he said would be writing in his first choice, Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio, for president.
“Given that President Obama has won twice, I wouldn’t be surprised if Clinton won the district,” Paulsen said, predicting that more voters than usual will write in other candidates.
Bonoff’s uphill climb
Bonoff, 59, announced in April she would seek the congressional seat but got a late start on fundraising, beginning in late May once the legislative session ended. Building her name identification outside of the state Senate district she has represented for more than a decade has also been among her top priorities. “It’s been nothing short of a herculean effort,” Bonoff said in an interview.
During a recent afternoon on the campaign trail, Bonoff kept a busy schedule. She met with a group of senior citizens to talk about her plan to reduce health care and prescription drug costs, and earlier had accepted the endorsement of a senior group founded by Jon “Bowzer” Bauman of the ’70s rock ‘n’ roll group Sha Na Na.
Immediately before her senior home visit in Eden Prairie, Bonoff hosted a roundtable discussion with women leaders who shared with her their top concerns this election cycle. Among the women was Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens, a Republican who has previously supported Paulsen but is now supporting Bonoff and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president.
The longtime local leader said she immediately supported Bonoff, citing her legislative and business experience. She said she did not wait to hear whether Paulsen would endorse Trump.
“His approach of how he dealt with Trump is indicative of his dependence on the Republican caucus and his lack of courage to challenge the party when the party is going somewhere wrong,” Tyra-Lukens said. “For a father of four daughters to not come out stronger against Trump earlier, it just kind of blows me away.”
Julie Woodward, 61, a Democrat from Eden Prairie, said she would likely be voting for Bonoff. “I usually vote straight across” for Democratic candidates, the small-business owner said recently in an interview from her Excelsior retail shop.
She said that while she doesn’t know Bonoff well, she tends to favor candidates with socially liberal views on same-sex marriage and a strong plan to grow jobs.
Some still on the fence
In the Third District’s northern suburbs of Maple Grove and Brooklyn Park, voters seemed less familiar with Paulsen and Bonoff. Many said they knew them only through political ads.
Billy Whitnell, a new Maple Grove resident from Chicago, said he’s still undecided in the presidential and congressional races. The 28-year-old pilot said his politics “lean more toward the middle. Currently, I’m favoring more what Trump has to say than what Hillary has to say,” he said.
Whitnell said that he would likely vote for Paulsen because he likes Republicans’ message of fiscal restraint and small government.
Andrea Edmonson, a 68-year-old Plymouth resident who was visiting a Maple Grove dog park, said she had already cast her ballot, voting for Trump and Paulsen.
“You can’t get anything done in Congress if you have a Republican president and a Democratic Congress, and vice versa,” Edmonson said. “I’ve never done this in my life before. I just voted straight ticket.”
She admitted she didn’t know much about Paulsen, but “I would have voted for him probably anyway.”