The ads tell the story of the contest for moderate voters in a suburban swing district of the Twin Cities.
U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, the DFL incumbent, shows us two furry creatures, “Fear” and “Optimism,” walking together in a park. “ ‘Fear’ discovered that ‘Optimism’ has the power to bring us together,” the narrator intones.
Republican challenger Kendall Qualls’ video has a slightly darker take, showing a fiery urban scene of destruction in the wake of George Floyd’s death. But it ends with a sunny image of a Black protester shaking hands with a riot cop.
Here’s the back story:
Phillips, a Deephaven businessman with a marketing background, ended the Republicans’ decadeslong reign in the western suburbs two years ago with a promise to bring a positive bipartisan attitude to a gridlocked Washington. His bid for a second term in the U.S. House remains centered on the same theme, even as a pandemic, a summer of reckoning over race and policing and a divisive presidential campaign renders the nation more fractured than ever.
“There’s a palpable sense right now that for the first time in many of our lives, the concerns are legitimate,” Phillips said as he drove his signature blue “Government Repair Truck” around the district on a recent Saturday. “The fear isn’t just about policy. The fear is about division and fear itself and the sense that the country is being intentionally ripped apart. And people want to mitigate that.”
The GOP’s comeback hopes rest on Qualls, a health care executive who pledges to bring an outsider’s lens and an independent streak to Congress as he, too, seeks to appeal to voters across party lines. He has attracted interest from national GOP leaders with a compelling life story of overcoming childhood poverty to serve in the U.S. Army and land executive-level roles in business.
Most political handicappers have rated the seat safe for Democrats, but Republicans are hoping a dynamic candidate, combined with steady suburban GOP messaging on urban unrest, can return the Third Congressional District to their column in November.
“This is the story of my life, people ruling me out,” Qualls said of his underdog status. Talking to a small group of supporters eating French toast and soup at a Medina diner recently, he said, “This is going to be the Cinderella story of the race.”
Much as in 2018, the outcome will likely hinge on where moderate voters land in a suburban landscape that Phillips flipped to DFL control for the first time in nearly 60 years.
As a political newcomer, Qualls faces an uphill battle in keeping up with the incumbent’s ability to self-fund and bring his story to the electorate in a pandemic. And although Republicans hope the presidential race will turn out GOP voters who stayed home in 2018, sharing the ballot with President Donald Trump also presents a potential problem for Qualls.
Phillips’ large margin in 2018 was in many ways seen as a referendum on Trump, who lost the district by 10 percentage points in 2016. Polling suggests the president remains unpopular among key suburban voting constituencies, including independents and women.
Republicans in the district are betting that Qualls’ appeal can transcend Trump’s negatives with some voters.
“He’s outgoing, he’s kind, he’s very good at listening to people,” said Patti Meier, chairwoman of the Third Congressional District Republicans. “There’s just something about him that [voters] gravitate toward.”
Qualls voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to do so again this year. He has said he supports much of the president’s agenda, even if he doesn’t always agree on tone or leadership style. While both candidates oppose defunding police, his campaign has increasingly focused on the president’s law and order message. He recently appeared at Vice President Mike Pence’s “Cops for Trump” rally in Minneapolis.
In his ad on the Floyd protests, Qualls, who is Black, says: “We have to face the challenges of race … without racing to destroy each other.”
To win, Qualls would need to build a coalition that includes both an energized GOP base and voters who, despite being dismayed with the president, are willing to split their ticket and vote for a Republican down-ballot. A recent lunch with supporters embodied that strategy. Across the table from longtime conservatives sat Eric Hines, a Plymouth Democrat who signed off to support Qualls after a meet-and-greet at a neighbor’s house.
Qualls argues voters in the district remain apt to split the ticket, as they have done in recent general elections.
“If I’m doing anything for this district, I’m returning this district to historical norms, not doing a Hail Mary pass,” he said.
He’s criticized Phillips for not going far enough to distance himself from more liberal Democratic colleagues, citing votes to support House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a record of voting with leadership on the floor.
Phillips sees support for Trump as incompatible with the district and says Qualls’ attacks distort his record of working across the aisle. Most major bills that make it to the floor, he noted, need leadership support. If anything, he says, his first term has generated heat from liberal activists who accuse him of sticking too close to the center.
Phillips’ endorsements include liberal labor unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Social media ads highlight his work as part of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group he joined along with Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., another freshman House member.
Those relationships helped him secure bipartisan support to pass laws adding flexibility for small businesses receiving coronavirus relief loans and extending deportation protections for the district’s sizable Liberian population.
Jeffrey Lunde, the Brooklyn Park mayor who worked for years to secure protections for Liberians, credits Phillips’ work with Republicans for getting the legislation through a divided Congress and signed into law by Trump.
“That bipartisan bill I think was key because it was unencumbered by some of the partisan bickering,” said Lunde, a Republican-turned-Independent who is neutral in the race.
Faced with pandemic limitations on large gatherings, both campaigns are getting creative trying to woo voters in one of the most educated and civically engaged districts in the nation.
Qualls, like many Republicans, continues to visit voters at their doorsteps. But the pandemic has limited traditional opportunities for the newcomer to introduce himself more broadly. Meantime, intimate meet-and-greets at supporters’ homes have become the norm. The campaign also is planning to launch an in-person town hall series.
“Our story is resonating,” Qualls said. “The awareness is one of the things we’re working through, but it’s not insurmountable.”
Phillips, too, has made adjustments. The flash mobs, pontoon boat rides and coffeehouse-style campaign office that defined his 2018 bid were scratched. Instead, they’ve turned to virtual phone banks and new tactics for engaging supporters.
On Saturday, Phillips greeted supporters waiting in their cars at his office parking lot, dropping lawn signs in trunks and offering elbow bumps through rolled-down windows. One volunteer told him she was nearing her thousandth postcard. “We’re going to have to pay for your wrist rehab,” he quipped.