Two years ago, talk of flipping Minnesota’s Second Congressional District from red to blue was primarily part of a stunt, as comedian Bill Maher made Republican incumbent John Kline a target of his “Flip a District” campaign.
The comedian failed to unseat the congressman, but Kline’s retirement this year is sparking a wide-open race in a bellwether district that is suddenly one of the most closely watched battles in the country.
DFLer Angie Craig, a former medical device company executive armed with one of the most active volunteer campaigns in the country and a war chest that topped $1.7 million by midsummer, has the attention of national Democratic campaign leaders who see her as a top prospect to win a historically Republican seat in Congress. But to get there, she’ll have to defeat an opponent already known to many voters: talk radio host Jason Lewis, a Republican who believes his long career sharing his conservative — and sometimes controversial — political views will resonate in the district.
With just over five weeks remaining before Election Day, both candidates are on a hectic dash of tours through farms, small businesses and colleges in a district that stretches from Lakeville to Red Wing to Northfield.
It is an emerging battleground district where voters twice picked President Obama, supported Democratic Senate candidates in the last two elections, but have only elected one Democrat to the U.S. House since Franklin Roosevelt was in office.
Craig says her well-organized campaign — whose volunteers had knocked on more than 300,000 doors by early September — is working to alter the course of history. The most recent campaign finance data available, released in July, show Craig with a major advantage: $1.5 million in contributions, and more than $1.7 million sitting in the bank. Lewis’ campaign had raised about $370,000 in contributions and had just under $107,000 on hand.
Kline said the district remains an area in which voting results can be tough to predict.
“Can Jason Lewis win? Yes. Can Angie Craig win? Yes,” said Kline, who has endorsed Lewis. “It’s a swing district, so it’s going to be about consistent messaging, the skills of the candidates, some things that are out of their control nationally or internationally that’s going to drive turnout.”
Seeking an edge
Craig, a 44-year-old former communications and human resources executive with St. Jude Medical, is appealing to independent voters with her background with a large business. She has told voters she wants to increase tax deductions for new small businesses and reward companies with a tax credit if they help employees repay student loans. Craig has also made veteran employment a focus of her platform, touting her work at St. Jude to set up a hiring program for people who had served in the military.
On her sweep through the district, Craig has also paid special attention to public health concerns, and specifically to the country’s growing opioid addiction epidemic. At a recent forum in Cottage Grove, Craig met with first responders, physicians and advocates to discuss a topic she said is personal. Craig, who lives in Eagan with her wife, Cheryl Greene, and four teenage sons, said the connection is through her 18-year-old son, Josh, who was adopted. The family had planned to introduce Josh to his birth mother when he turned 18, but discovered that she had died of a prescription-drug overdose years earlier.
Craig told the panel she promised her son to make stopping the epidemic a priority in Congress. She says she’d push for a fee on the active ingredient in pain pills, so the funds collected could be used to pay for substance abuse treatment.
“It’s clear from talking with the medical community, with law enforcement, that we need to expand access to treatment and recovery,” she said.
Lewis breaks out
Lewis, 61, has served as host of a public-affairs program on public television and his own syndicated radio show and wrote a book on states’ rights: “Power Divided is Power Checked.” He and his wife, Leigh, have two daughters and live in Woodbury, just outside the Second District’s border. (Members of Congress are not required to live in the districts they represent.)
On his own tour across the district, Lewis frequently points to his family’s small-business beginnings and the government action he says helped solidify his conservative views. Lewis was involved in running a motor-supply company founded by his grandfather in Waterloo, Iowa, when the facility ended up in the path of a planned highway project — and eventually shut down after the government exercised eminent domain.
At the Eagan staffing-software firm Avionte, Lewis told company leaders that he believes businesses are suffering from overregulation, citing new requirements for overtime pay of salaried workers and the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, which he called a “debacle.”
“You can’t mandate your way to more benefits,” he said. “You’ve got to have a higher level of productivity, and everybody benefits … that’s the only way to do it, with profits.”
Lewis said he wants the federal government to cut spending, flatten and simplify the tax code, and to reduce environmental regulation. He calls the Clean Water Act “an assault on property rights.” He said he also wants the U.S. to take a harder line on immigration, including blocking Syrian refugees from entering the country. Lewis said the country needs to tighten its borders, though he said he’s not sure if that means building a wall along the Mexico border, as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has suggested.
Finding his voice on the trail
On the campaign trail, Lewis has toned down some of the brash talk-radio commentary that won him fans. But Craig’s campaign, along with outside Democratic backers, have made a point to link Lewis’ on-air style to the bombastic pronouncements of his party’s presidential candidate.
Television ads funded by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee match up Trump’s comments with remarks Lewis has made, particularly about women. In a 2012 on-air discussion about federal funding for birth control, Lewis said many women were basing their voting decisions on “somebody else buying their diaphragm,” adding that a “vast majority” of young, single women “care about abortion and gay marriage. They care about ‘The View.’ They are nonthinking.”
Democratic groups have also targeted Lewis’ comments on minorities, slavery and victims of natural disasters, creating a website devoted to those quotes. Lewis has brushed off the criticism, saying that his words have been taken out of context. The negative ads, he said, are a sign of desperation.
Lewis, meanwhile, has made an issue out of legal challenges filed against St. Jude over its products and operations, arguing that Craig was culpable because of her high-profile role in the company.
The claims, Craig said, are a “desperate attack.”