Jason Lewis stood on a sunny bank of the St. Croix River late last month and spoke like someone with a lot of practice in stirring up an audience.
"The Senate is the last firewall in Washington, D.C. If we lose that, we lose the Republic," Minnesota's Republican candidate for U.S. Senate told a group of journalists and supporters in Stillwater's Lowell Park.
In vivid terms, Lewis described his view of the stakes in his challenge to U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, the only statewide race in a broader election-year confrontation between the two parties.
Democrats, he said, are a "mob that says if we don't get our way, we're going to keep fighting and making you conform until we do get our way. Very, very, very scary stuff."
Sharp rhetoric pours from this one-time radio host like water over falls. It matches a confrontational political style: In recent months, Lewis sued Gov. Tim Walz over COVID restrictions, joined protesters outside the governor's residence, and held a pro-police news conference against the backdrop of Minneapolis' burned-out Third Precinct police station.
In two stints on the air in the Twin Cities, Lewis was probably the most successful conservative talker the local market ever produced. He was nationally syndicated for a time and a regular guest host for the king of right-wing radio, Rush Limbaugh.
"That format had a strong following, and Jason had fabulous success in it," said Mick Anselmo, a retired broadcast executive who lured Lewis back to Minnesota for his second run, a daily KTLK-FM show from 2006-2014.
Lewis parlayed radio celebrity into a successful 2016 run for Congress. He leveraged a similar sharp-edged style, making him a good fit for Donald Trump's Republican Party.
"Guys like me, I couldn't get enough of him," said Jeff Schuette, an Eagan GOP activist and early supporter of Lewis' political ambitions. "I used to record his show if I couldn't listen to it live."
Lewis lost two years later as suburban voters turned against Trump's GOP. And he found that the talent for barbed witticisms that revved radio ratings weren't always an asset as a candidate for high office.
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"Now, are we beyond those days where a woman can behave as a slut and you can't call her a slut?" Lewis said on the air in 2012, one of a handful of clips to resurface in the Senate race, most recently wielded by Smith and her allies.
"A pundit is supposed to be provocative, to drive wedge issues," Lewis said in an interview. "It's about getting to the philosophy of things, exploring rhetorical questions. ... Everybody gets it. It's a different role, is all."
Roots in Minnesota, Iowa
On a recent Zoom call with regional business leaders, Lewis touched on a bit of family history that could be seen as formative in his libertarian-flavored worldview and skepticism toward government.
"We had a family business growing up," Lewis said on the call, convened to mark a U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsement. "Over 50 years in our family, until we went through something called eminent domain, which took our warehouse."
Lewis' grandfather opened Lewis Motor Supply in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1929. Lewis, now 65, grew up the youngest of seven in that northeastern Iowa city. His parents met as University of Minnesota students just before World War II; his mother grew up off Dupont and W. Broadway in Minneapolis. Lewis recalled frequent childhood trips to her old neighborhood and the Brainerd area in the summer.
By 1987, with Lewis' father semiretired and Lewis and his sisters in charge of the family business, they acceded to the Iowa Department of Transportation's decision to build a freeway through their property.
Lewis tells the story like a radio audience is listening: "They came in and said, 'Guess what, gang? You ever hear of eminent domain? Well, you're about to.' " The family closed the business.
"It really crushed his dad. It had been his life and his livelihood and his identity," said Rex Foster, an Atlanta doctor and childhood friend to Lewis. "Jason had a really close relationship with his father. It meant a lot to his dad, so it meant a lot to Jason."
But Lewis rejects the idea it's the secret origin of all his conservative principles.
"Trust me, I was already skeptical of government," Lewis said. His father liked Sen. Barry Goldwater, and Lewis said his own views were shaped by disdain for the protest culture of the late 1960s and early '70s. With a laugh, he recalled how as an undergraduate at the University of Northern Iowa, he once butted into the middle of a campus protest, "grabbed the microphone," and launched into a defense of free-market capitalism.
Another favorite of Lewis' father was a legendary AM radio broadcaster. "Dad would have Paul Harvey on the transistor in the morning," he said, calling the longtime radio talker "the greatest."
After shutting the family business, Lewis moved to Colorado for graduate school. He would listen to Denver's KOA-AM, he said, and successfully sought a meeting with its program director.
"I told her, 'I'm sure you've heard this a thousand times, but I think I could do this,' " Lewis said. "And she said, 'What are you doing Saturday? How about we put you on at 8?' "
Soon he was a regular fill-in. In 1990, Lewis first ran for office with a losing U.S. House bid in a liberal Boulder-area district that he now describes as "my quixotic affair."
Lewis headed to Charlotte, N.C., for his first full-time radio gig. In 1993 he connected with a program director at KSTP-AM, and within a year was on the air as "Minnesota's Mr. Right."
"He was controversial, and he'd say things Democrats would think were outrageous, and it got him a lot of fans," said Stan Hubbard, patriarch of the broadcasting family that owns KSTP.
Lewis left KSTP in 2003 for a brief return to Charlotte, but was back on the air in the Twin Cities by 2006. "The Jason Lewis Show" ended in 2014.
"I was 59, I had missed 20 years of swim meets," said Lewis, who lives with his wife and two daughters in Woodbury. Leigh Lewis, a retired St. Paul police officer, said she was already a fan when she approached her future husband at a St. Paul Saints game when he was on KSTP and she was working security.
"The officer I was working with said, 'You should go introduce yourself, he likes cops,' " Leigh Lewis recalled.
Shift to politics
The year he left radio, Lewis co-founded a members-only social media network and digital currency trading site, Galt.io. It hosted some inflammatory content and shut down for good earlier this year, according to a BuzzFeed report.
In 2016, GOP U.S. Rep. John Kline retired from Minnesota's Second Congressional District. Lewis quickly locked up GOP backing even though Kline and other prominent Republicans didn't initially support him.
"They were worried about all the super red-meat type stuff from the radio," said Schuette, the early supporter who is now chairman of the Second District GOP. "But a lot of us just gravitated toward him right away."
Lewis beat Democrat Angie Craig that year. In two years in Congress, he mostly voted with Trump and House Republican leadership, including for the 2017 tax cuts and to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He sponsored a juvenile justice reform measure that became law, and broke with most in his party to support lifting the federal prohibition on recreational marijuana and letting states set their own rules.
Craig unseated Lewis two years later. His past radio remarks came into play. Media aired past Lewis rants on same-sex marriage and parenthood ("Maybe it could harm the kid"); linking slavery to government welfare programs ("You've substituted one plantation for another"); and questioning how traumatizing it is for women to be sexually harassed ("Come on. She wasn't raped.")
"Just appalling rhetoric," said Michael Brodkorb, a Twin Cities writer and former Republican operative who acquired an archive of Lewis' old shows in 2016 and later shared it with media outlets. "There is a way for a conservative to go out and talk about hot button issues, but you can do it in a way that doesn't invoke, say, slavery."
Despite his 2018 loss, Lewis quickly cleared the field last year when he entered the GOP race to challenge Smith. His relish for verbal bomb-throwing and strong affinity for Trump made him a reliable draw for the GOP faithful. Lewis credits the president for a shift in his own political bearing "more towards populism, more towards America First" and away from traditional libertarianism.
Brendan Kearin, a producer of Lewis' KTLK show, still admires his radio abilities, despite their political differences: "This is a guy who understands what needs to be said to get people fired up."
Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413