Sen. Tina Smith works to forge her own positive identity in the Senate
Standing on the crest of a hill, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith could take in each corner of a 100-acre Northfield farm that sat desolate and polluted just four years ago. Now it sports perennials and a community-based poultry operation.
"I am by nature an optimist," Smith told a group of lawmakers and farmers touring the Main Street Project Farm on a recent Sunday morning. "So maybe I have to check myself, but my sense is that things can restore themselves with a helping hand. Am I wrong?"
Running to keep her U.S. Senate seat for the second time in as many years — the only statewide office that's up for grabs this year — Smith is banking on that optimism to carry her in a tightening race that has become a microcosm of the bitter and divisive presidential battle.
Front and center is a battle for the future of the Supreme Court, one that is likely to play out in the Senate days before the Nov. 3 election. Smith and her GOP challenger, former congressman Jason Lewis, are sharply divided on the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump's pick to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Smith says Barrett would be a threat to the Obama-era Affordable Care Act and to women's abortion rights.
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But she has not joined calls by some Democrats to increase the size of the Supreme Court — what Republicans call "packing" — for ideological balance if Joe Biden wins the election. "Any conversation beyond what is happening," she said, "is premature."
Smith's second Senate bid comes as she is still carving out an identity for herself in Washington. Lewis, running as a staunch Trump ally, has revived depictions of Smith as an anonymous face in the crowd. At a recent Minnesota rally, the president bellowed: "Nobody even knows who the hell she is!"
It is the same line of attack Smith parried in her first race, after being appointed to replace Al Franken in 2018. She held the seat later that year in a special election, defeating Republican state Sen. Karin Housley by a 10.5-point margin.
"She's been through one election that she won strongly," said former Vice President Walter Mondale. "They do know her, they like her and they're voting for her. It's not just a question of will they do it — they've done it."
Until her first election, Smith was best known as a party insider. She had managed Mondale's brief 2002 Senate campaign after the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone.
A former Planned Parenthood executive, she jumped into politics as an organizer, going on to manage political campaigns before serving as chief of staff for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and Gov. Mark Dayton.
Her 2018 victory marked the first time she campaigned for office on her own. Within months of that win, attention in Minnesota turned to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's presidential bid. Though seemingly more comfortable behind the scenes than making a scene publicly, Smith still wasted little time trying to make agricultural and health issues a priority in the Senate. She successfully lobbied for a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee alongside Klobuchar, making Minnesota one of few states with two senators on the committee.
While farm issues don't often generate national headlines, she has cultivated an image as an effective if low-profile legislator. Smith said she leaned on her experience living and working in Alaska to bond with GOP Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and she is working with the Republican Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy to push for improving COVID-19 testing and contact tracing across the country.
"Farmers in general learn at a very early age from their fathers, and really quite frankly from their grandfathers many times, that working together works," said Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, whose political action committee endorsed Smith last month. "You've got to work together with your neighbors, all of your neighbors."
Both Paap and Al Netland, president of the Northeast Area Labor Council, say that what has been dismissed by political opponents as a less-than-flashy style has failed to account for Smith's ability to get things done behind the scenes. "When we wanted something to happen in the governor's office, frankly, I'd go to Tina, not to Mark [Dayton]," Netland said.
Yet much of Minnesota is still getting to know its junior senator. While a recent Star Tribune/MPR News/KARE 11 Minnesota Poll found Smith ahead of Lewis by an eight-point margin, 49 to 41%, 10% of voters remained undecided and 17% said they had no opinion on Smith's job performance.
Ahead, but in no position to take anything for granted, Smith is splitting time between spending most weekdays in Washington and blitzing different parts of the state for multiple bursts of campaign stops on weekends.
"I feel a real responsibility to connect with and understand everybody in the state, not just the people who are kind of part of my core base," Smith said in an interview.
In the Senate, Smith has won her allies on both sides of the aisle: Her work with Murkowski on addressing shortfalls in maternal care in rural communities has been turned into a Smith campaign ad.
Watching from afar, Mondale says it's significant that Smith has forged a friendship with Klobuchar, adding that it is never a guarantee that any state's two senators get along, even if they're in the same party. When Klobuchar's husband, John Bessler, contracted COVID-19 earlier this year, Smith offered up her Washington apartment for her colleague.
Smith, 62, and her husband, Archie Smith, have made their home in Minnesota since the 1980s. Born in New Mexico, Smith studied political science at Stanford University, worked in Washington, D.C., for a research group and earned her MBA at Dartmouth before making the move to Minnesota to work at General Mills.
The Smiths have two adult sons and a new grandson. In Washington, Smith lives in an apartment just a few blocks from the Capitol. Archie Smith, an independent investor, stays in Minneapolis with Moose, their chocolate lab.
Her husband's investments have been a point of attack for Lewis, who questioned what "sensitive information" was involved in some stock sales she reported at the start of the pandemic in March. Smith's campaign responded that the transactions involved her husband. Smith owns no stocks.
U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., has come to know Smith sitting next to her both on the Senate floor and in Health Committee meetings. She praises her for a low-key style that often links discussions to anecdotes involving Minnesota residents. "She cares about solving the problem, not winning the argument, and that's critical," Hassan said.
But Ginsburg's death has raised the stakes in a race Democrats need to win to have any hope of reclaiming the Senate. Senate Republicans are pressing to confirm a new justice this year. Lewis has said it is important to confirm a new justice before the election to avoid any possible 4-4 rulings on a possible contested election. Smith, meanwhile, has drawn on her background with Planned Parenthood to highlight how abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act could be imperiled by a 6-3 conservative majority in the high court.
Policing and race also are playing a crucial role in a state with a close-up view of the unrest that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Lewis has run as an ardent supporter of the police. While Smith said she is opposed to defunding police, she believes more needs to be done to reshape policing in America. Floyd's death, she said, sparked "a reckoning and a realizing that public safety and our criminal justice system does not work the same if you are … a person of color."
At each campaign stop, Smith tries to instill that sense of optimism that she is wagering will overcome what she calls "fear tactics" emanating from the other side.
"I honestly believe that Minnesotans in this moment are craving leadership that is about what can we do together," Smith said. "What do we have in common?"