Fresh from a political convention where Republicans emerged in lockstep support of Donald Trump as the party’s presidential nominee, one notable Minnesotan is struggling to fall into line — U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen.
The four-term congressman from Eden Prairie has spent the past week talking about trade deals and invasive species in Minnesota lakes, but he has not been willing to talk publicly about the real estate mogul and reality television star locked in a fierce battle with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
“Trump is going to have to earn Erik’s vote,” said Paulsen campaign manager, John-Paul Yates. “He hasn’t done it yet.”
Paulsen’s failure to embrace Trump comes after party activists have hammered former rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for not endorsing the nominee, which critics say threatens party unity. But Paulsen suddenly finds himself battling for political survival in a suburban congressional district filled with affluent, educated residents, the kind least likely to support Trump.
If Democrats are going to win control of the House, they will need to knock off incumbents like Paulsen. They are already pouring enormous amounts of money and energy into the race, and taking every opportunity to closely align Paulsen and Trump.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee calls it the “Trump-Paulsen Ticket” and claims Paulsen “has eagerly wrapped his arms around Donald Trump.”
Before the political conventions, the Democratic House group commissioned an internal poll that showed Clinton leading Trump by 22 points in the district. Clinton led among women by 27 points and among likely independent voters by 28 points.
The Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter covering races across the country, recently announced that Paulsen’s district is no longer a safe Republican seat.
Paulsen’s district spans the north and western suburbs of Minneapolis, an area that is generally affluent and has the highest rate of voters holding a bachelor’s degree or higher — nearly half — among Minnesota’s eight districts. Voters in the district have sent a Republican to Congress every election dating to the 1960s.
Like other Republican leaders turned off by Trump, Paulsen skipped the GOP national convention.
Lately, he has criticized Trump for derogatory remarks about a federal judge of Mexican descent, crude comments about women, and for once saying that women who receive an abortion should face “some form of punishment.”
Trump’s unpopularity here paved the way for Paulsen’s most formidable opponent yet, state Sen. Terri Bonoff, a business-friendly DFLer from Minnetonka. She’s vigorously pushing to link Paulsen to Trump’s controversial statements, as well as draw attention to a national party platform that takes a hard line against same-sex marriage and ends taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood.
“Erik’s record is consistent with the current backward GOP platform,” Bonoff said.
Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2014, said he expects the voters will see past Trump and examine Paulsen’s record. He notes that the voters here have shown strong signs of splitting their ticket during past elections. The district voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 but sent Paulsen to Congress for the first time in 2008. He has easily won his later re-elections, in 2014 by a commanding 24 points.
On Trump’s prospects, Johnson said the Third District is “probably the place in the state where it will be hardest for him, just from talking to people.” He added: “I will vote for him, but not with great enthusiasm.”
Paulsen, meanwhile, is campaigning hard to distinguish himself from Trump. He’s highlighting bipartisan legislation he helped pass in Congress, including a medical device tax repeal — a measure that had the support of Democratic Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.
Last week, he hosted a roundtable discussion on trade where he expressed support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, breaking with Trump on a controversial trade agreement awaiting congressional approval.
“As a proponent of trade, I think Erik is probably disappointed with both candidates,” said Yates, noting that both Trump and Clinton oppose the recently negotiated pact. The presidential candidates say the trade agreement will hurt American workers.
Paulsen was unavailable for an interview, Yates said.
Fundraising in close race
With fewer than 100 days until the November election, both candidates are frantically raising money in what is becoming an intensely competitive race.
Since entering the race three months ago, Bonoff has reported raising $620,000. Paulsen outraised her, reporting $1 million raised and $3.2 million in cash-on-hand, which gives him a sizable advantage.
David Asp, a Minnesota delegate from Plymouth who attended the Republican National Convention, said Paulsen should be able to overcome Trump’s lack of popularity, mainly because he has now served as congressman since 2009.
“Congressman Paulsen is well known on his own,” Asp said. “I think that if history is a guide, voters in CD3 are willing to split their ticket if necessary.”