The high-stakes race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Tina Smith is a microcosm of the nation’s unpredictable, divided political landscape.
The top-tier candidates are two women in what’s already been dubbed “the year of women” — one of them an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump and the other the incumbent — and a primary challenger on Smith’s left who is trying to galvanize progressive voters by making the president his chief target.
Control of the Senate, where the GOP now has a tenuous one-vote edge, and the fate of Trump’s agenda are on the line.
The urgency and passion fueling the campaign were evident in recent interviews and appearances by Smith, Republican state Sen. Karin Housley of St. Marys Point, and law Prof. Richard Painter — a longtime Republican who switched parties to challenge DFL-endorsed Smith in the Aug. 14 primary election.
Other candidates are running in both primaries, but Painter is the highest-profile Democrat challenging Smith, and Housley is favored in the GOP race after winning the party’s endorsement.
“He reminds me of a reincarnated Paul Wellstone,” Robin Block of Minneapolis said as Painter spoke recently at Able Seedhouse + Brewery in the city’s northeast area.
Block, 67, backs Smith on many issues and is reluctant to vote against a woman. But Painter’s fiery emphasis on ethics — he says Trump should be impeached — makes him better suited “to take on the craziness in Washington.”
Housley sprinted in Coon Rapids’ holiday parade, shaking scores of hands. She was accompanied by a hog on a cart with the sign “As senator, Karin Housley will stop the pork.”
That message was made for Phil Rosar, 70, a real estate investor. When he learned that Housley is a Trump supporter, he said, “I’m going to vote for her for sure.” He’s tired of “paying taxes for all that stupid crap” that Democrats in Congress vote for, he said.
Nikki McLain is a founder of Royal Foundry Craft Spirits, a women-owned distillery that will open soon in Minneapolis. She preceded Smith’s contingent in Edina’s July 4th parade to promote the business.
As Smith darted back and forth to shake hands, admire babies and accept dog licks, McLain, 38, said she’ll vote for Smith because she wants a senator who “will do as good a job as Al Franken did, if not better.” McLain said she likes Smith’s support for small businesses and believes “we need more women in office.”
Housley agrees with that sentiment and says women bring common sense to politics. She was elected to the state Senate in 2012 and in 2014 lost a bid to become the GOP lieutenant governor nominee. “The word that describes her best is tenacious,” state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, said at this year’s Republican Party convention in Duluth.
Loyalty to Trump is crucial to voters like Dave Langerman, 64, a project manager from Coon Rapids, who said “of course” he’ll vote for Housley.
In an interview, Housley said she’s not always in sync with Trump’s style or policies. He was wrong to separate immigrant families, she said, and she wouldn’t support a Supreme Court nominee “who has made a decision [about abortion’s legality] before even hearing a case.”
Trump’s “delivery of his message is a little different” from what she’d prefer, Housley said, “but what he’s doing is working and he’s doing what he said he was going to do.”
She’s blunt when discussing Smith. “Tina Smith is an obstructionist” whose message works only among extremists, Housley said. Smith also is vulnerable, Housley said, “because she was part of the [Gov. Mark] Dayton administration and there were a lot of failures” while she was his chief of staff and lieutenant governor, citing MNsure and the troubled vehicle registration system.
The chairwoman of the Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee, Housley is critical of Dayton’s record on senior citizens’ issues, though her efforts to fix lapses in the eldercare system this year were panned by advocacy groups. She sponsored a new law that protects seniors from financial exploitation. She didn’t win Senate passage of a bill she sponsored to broaden sexual harassment laws.
Housley said she can be a catalyst for change in Washington. “That’s been my whole career: negotiating to get deals done,” she said.
Bargaining and diplomacy aren’t priorities for Painter, nor are they necessarily qualities that appeal to his supporters.
Minneapolis economist Jim Schmitz, 61, happened to be at Able brewery the evening Painter spoke. Schmitz knows more about Painter than he does about Smith, and Painter fits his appetite for change.
In his remarks, question-and-answer session and an interview, Painter made it clear that Trump, not Smith, is the focus of his campaign.
“What I’m most worried about is Donald Trump and where he’s taking this country,” Painter, who served as President George W. Bush’s ethics chief and teaches at the University of Minnesota, said in an interview. “I think he’s a threat to our democracy.”
Health care and the environment are his other top concerns, he said. Smith does become a target when he discusses the latter issue, criticizing a provision she sponsored that allows a land swap between PolyMet Mining Corp. and the federal government.
But he quickly steered back to Trump, calling Smith “more willing to work with him” than he would be. “I’m going to be more confrontational,” he said.
The DFL establishment backs Smith and has given Painter no help. But former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson endorsed him, calling him “one of the most refreshing voices of intelligence and straight talk to come upon the Minnesota scene in decades.”
Smith has worked to build rapport with some Republicans. She worked with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, on a measure that would expand mental health services in schools. The Senate Agriculture Committee, on which she serves, worked across party lines to write a farm bill. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, said in a statement he’s “glad to work” with Smith.
She described her approach to Washington’s schisms. “I try to put as much energy as I can into the places where we can find common ground,” she said, “and then also be willing to stand really strong where I feel the administration is off on the wrong track.”
That includes Trump’s policy of separating immigrant families, she said, and her expectation that he will nominate a Supreme Court justice who would overturn Roe vs. Wade.
Smith’s former leadership role at Planned Parenthood has drawn barbs from the GOP, including Housley, but she said attacking the organization is “a big misjudgment” because so many Minnesotans have received health care through it.
Smith said she’ll run again in 2020 if voters decide to allow her to finish Franken’s term.
Husniyah Dent Bradley, 43, a Richfield lawyer, is already sold. “I like her energy,” she said. But another Edina parade viewer, David Michael, 67, of Golden Valley, exemplifies Smith’s challenges. He’s working on Democrat Dean Phillips’ Third Congressional District campaign and sounded torn. Smith, he said, is “committed and I think she’ll be a great senator.” Then he added, “I like Richard Painter, too.”