Republican Doug Wardlow has pulled ahead of Democrat U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison in the race for Minnesota attorney general, a Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll found.
Wardlow now leads by 7 percentage points, at 43 percent to 36 percent for Ellison, just a month after the Democrat held a 5-point edge in a September Minnesota Poll. The switch follows a turbulent period for the Ellison campaign, as he has navigated the political fallout of his former girlfriend’s allegation that he abused her in 2016, a claim he denies.
About one in six poll participants said they had not made up their minds about who to support. Republicans appear to be falling in line behind Wardlow, but an increasing number of Democrats were undecided about who to back compared to September.
The poll, which has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, included interviews with 800 likely voters and was conducted Oct. 15-17. That means it was primarily conducted just before the public release of Ellison’s divorce file on Oct. 17, which did not include any claims he abused his ex-wife.
Voters in Hennepin and Ramsey counties preferred Ellison in the new poll, but Wardlow was ahead in every other part of the state.
Wardlow’s support also grew among voters aged 18 to 34. That age group went for Ellison by a wide margin in the September poll, and while he still leads among such voters, the percentage that backed Wardlow more than doubled.
The poll showed Ellison, a six-term congressman, former state legislator and deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is more widely known around the state than his opponent. Wardlow is an attorney who served one term in the Minnesota House. More people said they are aware of Wardlow compared to last month, but nonetheless fewer than half the people who took part in the survey said they recognized his name.
Some poll participants who plan to vote for the Republican said their decision is based less on Wardlow and more on opposition to Ellison.
“It’s more that Keith Ellison scares me,” said Dave Theis, 56, a farmer from Jordan. He fears Ellison will file “endless lawsuits” against President Donald Trump’s administration, which he worries could cost Minnesotans millions.
Linda Washington, 69, a retired 3M employee from Stacy, said she is scared too — but it’s Trump she fears. She is looking for an attorney general who will stand up to the president on issues like immigration, and believes Ellison would fill that role.
Washington said she is concerned the #MeToo movement has reached a point where people are too quick to judge someone like Ellison, whom she called a “straight shooter.” She doesn’t believe he committed abuse, and said she liked how he handled the difficult situation — particularly his willingness to comply with any investigation.
The state DFL Party hired an attorney to investigate Karen Monahan’s allegation that Ellison tried to pull her off a bed by her legs and feet while they were in a fight. The attorney who looked into the situation could not substantiate the claim; the firm she works for represents the DFL but has donated money to both political parties.
Nancy Gilbertson, of Savage, said she tends to believe women who come forward with such stories unless the man can prove otherwise, and she is not satisfied with Ellison’s response.
Nearly half of the poll participants said they were not sure whether they believe what Monahan said. Just less than a third said they did believe her, up from a month ago, while about a fifth did not believe her. About half of Republicans said they believe Monahan, compared with 13 percent of Democrats and a third of independent voters.
Both the September and October polls showed men preferred Wardlow at a higher rate.
More women wanted Ellison to be attorney general — but just barely. In the latest poll the percent of women picking Ellison was one point higher than the percent who opted for Wardlow, 39 to 38 percent. Last month 46 percent of women chose Ellison and 30 percent went for Wardlow.
Poll participants who make more than $50,000 a year were more likely to vote for Wardlow, and Ellison was more popular among those making less than that.
Five percent of the participants picked Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis candidate Noah Johnson to be the next attorney general, the same level of support he earned last month.
Johnson announced on Oct. 15 that he supports Ellison, after the Democratic candidate said he wants to legalize marijuana. Johnson asked those backing him to vote for Ellison instead.
Ellison has said on the campaign trail that he is trying to pull support not just from those who fit in the “likely voter” category.
“We cannot just rely on the likely voters. You know, the people who get poll questions … Who can really shift the election for us in particular is the unlikely voter. The occasional voter,” he told supporters at a Minneapolis event last Friday.
Candidates in races up and down the ballot have directed a lot of resources to turning out voters in the suburbs, which are a political battleground. Wardlow appears to have a strong advantage over Ellison in that area. The Republican had a 5-point lead last month in Twin Cities counties except Hennepin and Ramsey, but the latest poll shows he now has a 24-point lead.
Gilbertson is one of those suburban residents. She, like Theis, said her vote will primarily be one of opposition to Ellison. But the 56-year-old who works in construction also noted that she agrees with Wardlow’s goals of addressing sex trafficking and welfare fraud.
Minneapolis resident Mark Thompson is an Ellison supporter. He said his decision is not based on a particular policy but on the congressman’s skills as a communicator, and his ability to connect with constituents in an honest way. Thompson, 31, is hopeful Ellison will fare well this election year.
“I think Democrats as a group are pretty angry and I think we’re going to show up to demonstrate that,” Thompson said.