Will Minnesota be the canary in the Trump mine for House control?

Will Donald Trump hinder down-ballot Republicans, or perhaps boost others? Three House races in Minnesota might give a measure of the coattails from the ticket, argues National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar. Republicans have to defend two suburban districts in the Twin Cities where Trump’s brashness might conflict with Minnesota Nice, but could play better in a traditionally Democratic district in the northeastern part of the state:

To fill the seat of re­tir­ing GOP Rep. John Kline, the dis­trict’s Re­pub­lic­an act­iv­ists en­dorsed a polit­ic­ally in­cor­rect former ra­dio-talk-show host (Jason Lewis) over a more seasoned state le­gis­lat­or. The Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate, busi­ness­wo­man Angie Craig, would be the first wo­man to rep­res­ent the sub­urb­an Twin Cit­ies dis­trict. In par­al­lels to the pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, Craig has called Lewis “sex­ist and ig­nor­ant” as she tries to tie her pos­sible GOP rival to Trump.

In the neigh­bor­ing sub­urb­an dis­trict held by GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen, Trump’s can­did­acy is also loom­ing large. Paulsen, who has cruised to vic­tory since his first elec­tion in 2008, faces a dif­fi­cult chal­lenge from state Sen. Terri Bonoff, a mod­er­ate who is try­ing to hand­cuff Paulsen to his party’s pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee. Her en­trance in the race in April was a dir­ect con­sequence of Trump lock­ing down the GOP nom­in­a­tion.

And up on the state’s rur­al Iron Range, Trump’s ap­peal is a ma­jor wild card in a re­match between Demo­crat­ic Rep. Rick No­lan and Re­pub­lic­an busi­ness­man Stew­art Mills. This is Min­nesota’s ver­sion of Trump coun­try, where the busi­ness­man won more votes than in any oth­er dis­trict in the state’s March caucuses. But the work­ing-class dis­trict also leans Demo­crat­ic, and No­lan was one of the few tar­geted House Demo­crats to pre­vail in the 2014 midterms.

It’s an interesting hypothesis, but it still remains to be seen whether Trump will impact down-ballot races at all. To use Pennsylvania as one example, Pat Toomey still does well in his Senate re-election polling, running well ahead of his potential Democratic rivals even while Trump trails Hillary Clinton in the PA RCP average by seven points. Perhaps especially because of Trump’s unique nature, it may well be that voters can separate the top of the ticket from races of a more local nature.

The toughest challenge for the GOP in Minnesota will be in its second Congressional district, where John Kline has retired. Jason Lewis is a popular choice among conservatives, but Democrats have long targeted this district, coincidentally where I live. Bill Maher even made it his “flip this seat” project in 2014, only to see his efforts go down in flames with a 17-point win for Kline. With Kline out of the picture, Republicans will have to work harder to win it, but the situation may not quite be as dire as Kraushaar projects.

To judge this, let’s return to 2012 to judge the coattails of Barack Obama. Obama won Minnesota by double digits in 2008, and his popularity only narrowed a little four years later when he beat Mitt Romney by eight points in this state. Even with that wide gap at the top of the ticket, Kline beat the well-known Mike Obermueller by eight points in MN-02, a turnaround of 16 points in the gap. In MN-03, Paulsen romped over Brian Barnes by 16 points, a turnaround in the gap of 24 points. It was in MN-08 where Democrats matched Obama’s performance, as Rick Nolan won back the Iron Range seat by eight points over freshman Rep. Chip Cravaack.

The results of the presidential races in each of these districts shows the difficulty for Democrats in making Trump the issue, too. Obama only won by 226 votes in MN-02 out of more than 369,000 cast despite his statewide popularity; Obermueller got 20,000 fewer votes than Obama did, while Kline got 9,000 more than Romney and Obama. Obama won MN-03 by 3200 votes, but Paulsen got 27,000 more votes than Romney, while Barnes dropped 40,000 from Obama’s total. Obama scored a 20,000-vote win in MN-08, but even there Nolan outperformed Obama by 5,000, while Cravaack underperformed from Romney’s total by 6400.

What does that tell us? Basically, all politics are local, especially in House races in Minnesota. With the Trump campaign signaling that they won’t do a lot of ground-up campaigning, that will leave plenty of space for Lewis, Paulsen, and Mills to define themselves, even if Trump’s “GOP Impaler” personality doesn’t work with “Minnesota Nice.” Coattails don’t seem to have much length in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, at least not in these districts.

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David Strom 6:01 PM on March 29, 2023