WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Angie Craig is heading into her most difficult re-election fight yet, defending a suburban battleground district amid a formidable series of challenges burdening Democrats across the country
The fate of Craig and other Democrats is closely tied to President Joe Biden, who is facing sagging approval ratings, a raging pandemic, soaring inflation, growing tensions over Russia and a stalled agenda on Capitol Hill. As a result, anxiety is rising among Democrats over the possibility of a bruising round of congressional losses.
"It's going to be a hell of a fight to hold the House," said Craig, whose Second Congressional District is a target as an energized GOP looks to take back seats like hers that have swung between the two parties in the last decade.
House Republicans have targeted the race for the past year as part of their push to ride anti-Biden sentiment back into power.
"The Second Congressional District is a district that literally resembles that of the nation," said Tyler Kistner. The Republican, who narrowly lost to Craig in 2020 and is seeking to unseat her again, added that "you're hearing people frustrated. Mostly frustrated about inflation and the economy, as well as crime and safety and security amongst the streets."
Biden's first presidential visit to Minnesota in November took him to the Second District, where Craig and other Democrats promoted a bipartisan infrastructure law bringing billions of dollars to Minnesota.
In an interview with the Star Tribune less than two months later, Craig was evasive on whether Biden is a drag on her re-election chances.
"It's a midterm," Craig said. "And as we all know, the party who has the presidency typically loses seats in a midterm."
And in this midterm, the once-a-decade redistricting process means Craig's district will be redrawn. Both parties have proposed new congressional maps, but the final boundaries will likely be determined by the courts next month. Whether the district will become more GOP friendly or kinder to the Democrats could change the outlook for the contest.
"It's our race to lose at this point," said Joseph Ditto, a former Scott County GOP chairman. "We just need to keep hammering home the points of law and order and fiscal discipline."
"In Minnesota, in some ways, we've prided ourselves in the past of being somewhat insulated from these national trends, but in recent years, it's just not true," said Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin. "The national debate on a lot of these critical issues right now will have an oversized impact on what happens in CD 2, and I actually think that it will accrue to the benefit of Angie Craig."
A year into Biden's presidency, Democrats have a mix of legislative achievements and embarrassing setbacks. A $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package passed last March sent major aid to Minnesota communities. A roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law appears ready made for swing district lawmakers eager to show they could bring more money back from Washington.
But other aspects of Democrats' lofty ambitions are stalled in Washington, freezing Biden's agenda. The president's struggles loom as a campaign issue for Democrats trying to show voters what their party's control of Congress and the White House has meant for them in a tangible way.
"President Biden is a man of integrity and of sound character, of empathy and competency," said Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips, who like Craig won a Minnesota swing district seat in the 2018 midterms. "But there is no question that there have been some missteps, self-inflicted, and have been disappointments certainly, to me, and to many in the country, which explain his quite low approval rating right now."
The latest version of Democrats' voting legislation, scaled back from an ambitious measure that passed the House, has died for now in the Senate. And in the biggest setback of Biden's presidency to date, Democrats' roughly $2 trillion climate and social spending bill dubbed the Build Back Better Act passed the House, with Craig's vote, only to get sidelined in the Senate.
"I fought like hell to get prescription drug costs lowered in that bill, I fought to get biofuels infrastructure in the bill," Craig said. "But the truth is, it's not going to get past the Senate, and the administration needs to focus on what my constituents and Americans are focused on right now. And that's the issues of everyday life. The kids need to stay in school, we need to address the supply-chain issues. Gas prices are up. Grocery prices are up."
Craig wants her party to pivot. People grew "really sick and tired of seeing Democrats fight among themselves," she said.
"Where is the package of bills that will help us address our supply-chain issues?" Craig said. "I promised my constituents that I'd speak out when I didn't agree with my own party. And right now, I don't think we're as focused on ending the COVID-19 pandemic and the issues associated with it as we should be."
She also criticized the Biden administration's COVID response, saying it "was caught flat-footed on being prepared for the next variant. I don't want to see that happen again."
Craig's only challenger so far is Kistner, a Marine Corps veteran, which means this fall could be a rematch of their 2020 race.
"Now that President Biden's approval has fallen to 43 or 44 percent, she would have to overcome that drag to hold on to the seat," said David Wasserman, U.S. House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "Republicans are going to be investing a lot more into this race than they did last time."
Kistner lost the last contest by about 2 percentage points, and a third party candidate whose death before Election Day nearly upended the race drew around 5.8% of the vote.
"Craig has really tied herself to Biden and the Build Back Better," said Kistner, who said he would have voted against the bipartisan infrastructure law if he were in office. "She's tied herself to a lot of these policies and agenda that the Democrats are pushing. And she's not swaying away from it like a lot of other swing district representatives are."
For now, Craig represents a district that stretches from the southern Twin Cities suburbs down to Goodhue and Wabasha counties along the Wisconsin border
In Zumbrota, home to fewer than 4,000 people in Goodhue County, Mayor Todd Hammel is publicly neutral in the race. It is uncertain whether his community will remain in the Second District moving forward.
Craig has "done the city of Zumbrota well," Hammel said, complimenting her attention to small businesses. But Kistner stopped into City Hall recently, and the mayor said he "had a lot of right answers."
"He's going to give her a run for the money," Hammel said.