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Minnesota congressional races competitive, could effect U.S. House control

EDINA, Minn. -- A look at Minnesota’s congressional maps shows a Republican ring nearly encircling the Twin Cities.

Could this be the year Democrats break through?

Democrats are banking on challengers Angie Craig and Dean Phillips — neither of whom has held political office — to win over suburban voters to the south and west of the Twin Cities. Craig is in a rematch with U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis for the 2nd District, and Phillips is trying to unseat five-term U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen in the 3rd District.

The two challengers are stressing health care reform to voters and their willingness to work across the aisle, while also taking shots at their opponents’ voting records. Recent polls suggest their messages may be connecting; Craig and Phillips have led in most 2nd and 3rd District polls.

“I think that the Democrats have a platform and a message that’s resonating with suburban voters,” said Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin.

Meanwhile, Lewis and Paulsen have pointed to the strength of the economy and their legislative records as why they should be re-elected. Lewis has touted his efforts to expand career and technical skills training and desire to reform the Metropolitan Council, an unelected regional authority regulating Twin Cities transportation and infrastructure spending. Paulsen, a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, has cited his record of bipartisan legislation and willingness to stand up to party leaders.

Minnesota Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan said she is confident Lewis and Paulsen will be re-elected. She said this year’s contest is no different than 2016, when Democrats fell short in the 2nd and 3rd districts.

“The Democrats are heavily targeting those two districts because (they are) suburban districts and they think … suburban areas are moving away from Republicans, and that actually is not the case,” Carnahan said.

Craig has made health care a hallmark of her second campaign for the 2nd District, which spans beyond suburbs south of the Twin Cities to Scott, Dakota, Goodhue and Wabasha counties.

In a West St. Paul conference room Monday, Craig convened a panel of health care experts, treatment providers and constituents to discuss the growing opioid epidemic. Poised and present, Craig, a former medical technology executive, jotted notes as panelists traded ideas on how to combat a crisis that claimed the lives of 401 Minnesotans in 2017.

“This panel is just one of many that I’ve done this cycle where I’ve really tried to listen and learn … about how we solve the nation’s problems,” Craig said. Standing up to pharmaceutical companies is an important step toward creating a health care system that puts consumers first, she said.

Craig openly laments that health care has become too political, and has repeatedly criticized Lewis for supporting the GOP effort to repeal the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act last year.

If elected, Craig said she would push to fix parts of the ACA and open up the health insurance market by allowing younger customers to “buy in” to Medicare, the federal health insurance program for seniors. Unlike some in her party, Craig does not support a Medicare-for-all proposal, which she said is “simply not practical.”

Lewis, who defeated Craig by less than 2 percentage points in 2016, has argued that a Medicare buy-in is not much different — both would “end Medicare for seniors as we know it.”

On a recent Saturday morning, Lewis spoke to members of a conservative Republican women’s club in Prior Lake. The Republican used the charisma he developed as a conservative radio talk show host to charm the room with one-liners before discussing the “neck-and-neck” fight for the U.S. House.

“If (Republicans) lose the House, we will go backwards,” Lewis said. He warned that Democrats would “plunge this country into a constitutional crisis” by trying to impeach President Donald Trump and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

In vying for his second term in Congress, Lewis is promoting both his own record and progress made under the Trump administration. He is quick to mention the federal tax overhaul and historic low unemployment levels, but also notes legislation he authored that increased training and funding for career and technical education.

If re-elected, Lewis said his top priority will be to reform the Metropolitan Council, which oversees hundreds of millions in spending across the Twin Cities metro. He said he would push for an amendment requiring there to be one elected member on the council.

Recent federal spending reports show Craig with an overall fundraising advantage in the race for the 2nd District, raising $4.2 million to Lewis’s $2.5 million so far this year.

In the suburban 3rd District, which rings Minneapolis on the north, west and south, Phillips and Paulsen are locked in a similarly contentious race.

A businessman, heir to the Phillips liquor fortune and grandson of advice columnist “Dear Abby,” Phillips is seeking to become the first Democrat to represent the district since 1961. The first-time candidate, who takes his campaign slogan of “Everyone’s Invited!” to heart, has pledged to be an “independent-minded” representative.

“I’m tired of representatives who only need to cater to 50 percent of their constituents, and that’s true on both sides of the aisle,” Phillips said. “I think there’s a better way forward, and that begins with inviting everybody to the conversation.”

Phillips has made campaign finance reform his signature issue, stating that nothing will get fixed until money is out of Congress. He is one of a few candidates in the country who have refused money from political action committees, lobbyists or special interest groups, instead relying on contributions from thousands of supporters.

Phillips has painted Paulsen as an establishment congressman who is out of touch with voters. He is quick to point out that Paulsen is the fourth-largest recipient of PAC money in Congress, and that he has voted in line with Trump 98 percent of the time.

Paulsen describes his record differently; he says he is an effective member of Congress with a record of bipartisanship. In 2017, Paulsen had bipartisan cosponsors on 18 of his 25 bills and resolutions.

His voting record notwithstanding, Paulsen said he will stand up to Trump and his party’s leadership when he disagrees with them. He has opposed the Trump administration’s decision to pursue mineral exploration in an area near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, even making the issue the focus of one of his first campaign ads.

“Minnesotans want their leaders to stick up for Minnesota, regardless of who the party is,” Paulsen said.

Like Lewis, Paulsen expects the state of the economy to help his election prospects. “People are better off now than they were two years ago and we’re seeing the benefits of tax reform that is actually growing our economy,” he said.

Financially, Paulsen has the upper hand on Phillips. He has raised $5.4 million so far this year, while Phillips has raised about $4 million.

Tuesday’s election could cause a shift of power in Minnesota’s congressional delegation.

Barring no major upsets, Democrats could take control of seven of the state’s eight congressional seats if they pick up the 2nd and 3rd districts and hold onto the 1st and 8th districts, where no incumbents are running. Likewise, Republicans could control five congressional districts if they flip the 1st and 8th districts and maintain the suburbs.

Or it could be a wash.

The Cook Political Report rates the suburban races as leaning Democratic and the 8th District as leaning Republican. That leaves the 1st District of southern Minnesota, which is rated a toss-up.

Minnesota’s congressional races also take on national significance, as they could help determine who controls the U.S. House. Democrats must flip at least 23 seats held by Republicans to retake the House.

The 4th and 5th districts, principally encompassing the urban cores of St. Paul and Minneapolis respectively, are seen as safe Democratic seats. The 7th District, covering western Minnesota, and the northern suburban 6th are likewise seen as safe seats for the Democratic and Republican incumbents respectively.

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