With fewer than 60 days to go, a key question has emerged in the Senate race pitting state Sen. Karin Housley, a Republican from the east metro, against U.S. Sen. Tina Smith.
Will national GOP money come in to help Housley after she’s put together a viable campaign in what is widely considered to be a difficult year for Republicans?
Housley is leveraging her husband Phil Housley’s hockey celebrity with a new ad unveiled last week, spending $322,000 on TV time.
The ad dings Smith for being a “career politician,” even though Smith was only first elected in 2014, and only as running mate to Gov. Mark Dayton, who appointed her to the Senate after Al Franken resigned.
“Work hard. Play fair. And do the right thing,” Housley says, looking directly into the camera while her husband skates in the background.
“It’s a smart ad,” a DFL operative told me sheepishly last week.
But Housley remains unknown to many Minnesotans and will have to distinguish herself from generic Republicans in a year when just 42 percent of the country identifies as Republican or a Republican-leaning independent, according to a June Gallup poll.
Enter the National Republican Senate Committee (NRSC), which can drop $1 million and change a race overnight.
“I’ve heard a surprising amount of chatter about Housley,” a D.C.-based Republican strategist told me last week. “A lot of people are impressed with her as a candidate,” said the Republican, who was granted anonymity to speak freely about party strategy.
Housley faces a strange paradox based on the Republicans’ Senate map, which is one of the most favorable in recent history. They are blessed with a bevy of pickup opportunities in red states, like Montana, North Dakota and Florida.
That means less priority for Minnesota, where a Republican hasn’t won a statewide race since 2006.
But the volatile nature of this election year could help Housley.
“As some of the other red state races have proved tougher than we hoped, like West Virginia, people are giving Minnesota a closer look,” said the GOP source.
On the other hand, Republicans are struggling to close out some races that should be easy wins in places like Texas and Tennessee — forcing the NRSC to throw money at those places instead of taking a shot at a state like Minnesota.
But ... “If it looks like Minnesota can be close and a potential pickup, you’ll see the cavalry coming,” the Republican source told me.
A tracker for the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, which is a GOP-leaning group, confronted DFL House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman last week. She let down her guard and said, “The question is, how many white supremacists do you have running now? My count is three.”
Which three? I asked. She declined to elaborate.