This is not your typical congressional matchup.
On one side, there is longtime incumbent Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum, gaining prominence on one of the most powerful U.S. House committees after two decades in Congress.
Then there’s Gene Rechtzigel, a “self-employed farmer, property manager, self-taught legal expert” whose chaotic campaign website includes claims that “space weather” is causing climate change and the Metropolitan Council is a “tentacle” of the United Nations that must be dismantled.
Rechtzigel was not the Republican Party’s endorsed candidate but is nonetheless its representative on the ballot in the Fourth Congressional District, which includes Ramsey County and much of Washington County. The district has overwhelmingly supported Democrats for decades. But even local Republican Party leaders say they were surprised by the minimal GOP turnout in the August primary, which they cited as the reason Rechtzigel defeated the party’s chosen candidate, attorney Sia Lo.
With a win for McCollum all but certain, the congresswoman has focused more on supporting other Democratic candidates, from state legislators to presidential candidate Joe Biden. In Washington, she’s working on issues like COVID-19 response and trying to ban copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters wilderness.
She wields significant influence as the chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Environment, Interior and Related Agencies. She shepherded a $36.8 billion bill through the House this year that would increase spending for Native American services and education, protecting public lands and addressing climate change.
McCollum is poised to step into an even more prominent position as chairwoman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. She has not ruled out a run for chairwoman of the full Appropriations Committee, which would give her a commanding role in shaping congressional spending. “Whether she is chair of the full committee, or the Defense Subcommittee, she’s going to have tremendous powers,” said former Virginia Democratic Rep. Jim Moran, who served with McCollum on the Appropriations Committee for years and described her as “a person of consequence.”
Moran said he has been telling people that one of the things to watch next term is McCollum’s rising influence at the Capitol, though that power would be checked if Democrats don’t maintain their majority in the House in November.
Despite her clout, McCollum isn’t the most headline-grabbing member of the Minnesota delegation. She said her goals are to learn, move legislation forward and help people navigate the federal government, “not to have the most Twitter followers or the most daily interviews on CNN.”
But she has regularly spoken out against President Donald Trump, including his stance on maintaining Confederate statues. She added a requirement in her subcommittee’s latest spending bill requiring the National Park Service to take down all Confederate commemorative items. In a statement, Democratic Majority Whip Jim Clyburn called her “an effective leader on the House Appropriations Committee, the most sought-after assignment in Congress.”
While McCollum’s profile is rising, Republicans in her district oppose the way she is representing them in Congress.
St. Paul Republican City Committee Chairwoman Sara Rasque-Michener said McCollum has not done enough to address public safety fears, particularly on the Green Line light rail. And both she and Mikki Murray, chairwoman of the Fourth District Republicans, noted concerns about McCollum’s criticism of the Israeli government.
While Minnesota U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments on the Middle East have attracted more attention, McCollum has clashed more than once with the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and is trying to block the Israeli military from using U.S. dollars to detain Palestinian children.
Murray said McCollum’s outspoken position on Palestinian rights would be particularly troubling if she were to win the Appropriations gavel. “It’s very concerning to me that she would be in that role and that position with the stance that she’s got on Israel, which is one of our strongest partners in the world,” Murray said.
But Murray and other Fourth District GOP voters — roughly 100,000 people in recent elections — are in an unusual position this fall. They must weigh whether to mark their ballots for Rechtzigel, pick another candidate or simply not cast votes in the congressional race.
Rechtzigel did not return repeated interview requests but lays out his views on his websites. He says prayer and Bible education will reduce crime by two-thirds and proposes replacing the Obama-era Affordable Care Act with “GeneCare.” The site also contains a news alert about genetically modified Zika mosquitoes in Florida.
Rasque-Michener, the GOP city committee chairwoman, said she is not sure whom she will pick. She said she had never previously heard of Rechtzigel, who did not seek the party’s endorsement. She urges voters to look at his website and also consider Susan Sindt, the candidate for the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party.
“Conservatives shouldn’t be discouraged,” she said. “We still need them to come out and vote.”
Rechtzigel defeated Lo by 316 votes in August, when 18,048 people voted in the Republican primary. Four candidates challenged McCollum, but she easily won with 84% of the 95,266 votes cast in the DFL primary.
Lo, who was the endorsed GOP candidate, is a private practice attorney and former St. Paul deputy city attorney. He serves as general counsel for the Hmong Council of 18, which brings together Hmong clans to support the community. He also did not respond to requests for comment.
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McCollum wonders if the outcome in the GOP primary was a reflection of anti-refugee sentiment frequently expressed by Trump and his supporters.
“This [GOP] has become a party of division and hate,” she said. “And I hope that isn’t what we saw in the Fourth District outcome in the Republican primary, but I’m very concerned that it could have been.”
Murray said she is worried Lo’s defeat sends the wrong signal about her party’s inclusiveness to the large population of Southeast Asian residents in the district.
“I would be remiss if I wasn’t concerned about that, because questions have been raised about it,” she said. But she noted that the GOP is continuing to do outreach into Hmong, Cambodian, Vietnamese and other communities, and the state party hired Lo to help with that work.
“It’s not a flash in the pan,” Murray said. “It’s really establishing relationships going forward and Sia is still helping us with those, even today.”