Why Republicans Could Lose a House Seat in Minnesota

Democrats could finally pick up the seat of Rep. John Kline, now that he is retiring.

Rep. John Kline of Minnesota announced in September that he wouldn't seek reelection in 2016.
AP Photo/ Evan Vucci
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
March 23, 2016, 8 p.m.

Early last month, Republican Rep. John Kline criticized a few unusual targets: the GOP candidates hoping to replace him.

Kline, who is retiring at the end of this term, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press he’s “a little bit concerned by the fundraising” of Republicans who filed reports at the end of January.

It’s rare for a lawmaker to take aim at would-be successors from his own party. But Kline is not the only Republican to sound alarms about the GOP’s chances in his swing Minnesota district, where the party is bracing for a messy fight among its four candidates.

Republicans face a few challenges in keeping the 2nd District seat.

Wealthy businesswoman Angie Craig faces a clear path to the Democratic nomination and had nearly $1 million in cash on hand by Dec. 31. Meanwhile, two Republicans, former state Sen. John Howe and businesswoman Darlene Miller, have declined to abide by the party’s endorsement at the May 7 convention, complicating the GOP’s efforts to avoid a costly primary.

Republican candidates anticipate having to spend significant resources on their Aug. 9 contest—one of the latest primaries on the House race calendar—leaving a short window to ramp up for the general.

The latest issue to roil the race was the uncovering of past comments on women and slavery from another GOP candidate, former radio talk show host Jason Lewis.

“Jason has said a lot of outrageous and indefensible things over the years,” said St. Paul-based Republican consultant Brian McClung, who was a spokesman for former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “And that would make it much more difficult for Republicans to hold the seat.”

In his 2011 book, Lewis wrote that Abraham Lincoln "exploited the issue" of slavery. On his radio show in 2012, Lewis said, “There's something about young, single women where they’re behaving like Stepford wives. They walk in lockstep. Is that really the most important thing to a 25-year-old unmarried woman—getting me to pay for her pills?” He also asserted that single women are “simply ignorant of the important issues in life," remarks that prompted former Republican candidate Pam Myhra to call for him to end his campaign.

In an interview Wednesday with National Journal, Lewis stood by his comments, saying he opposes taxpayer funding for abortion and contraceptives. He also shot down the suggestion that his statements would harm his party’s prospects for holding the seat.

“Our name ID provides us with a crucial advantage,” Lewis said, also pointing to endorsements he’s received from state Sens. Karin Housley and Dave Thompson. “We don’t have to spend half a million dollars. … I’ve got a loyal following.”

Other Republicans say the identity of the nominee won’t even matter if real-estate mogul Donald Trump tops the ticket. Sen. Marco Rubio, whom Kline endorsed, won the state’s presidential caucuses, while Trump finished third.

“If Donald Trump is the nominee, we don’t stand a chance in this district,” said Republican state Rep. Pat Garofalo, whom some Republicans wanted to run for the seat. “As unpopular as Hillary Clinton is, she is Gandhi compared to Trump.”

Since entering Congress in 2002, Kline won reelection fairly comfortably each cycle despite the district’s moderate makeup. Even in 2012, after redistricting modified the district to be more competitive for Democrats, Kline defeated Democrat Mike Obermueller by 8 points as President Obama carried it by less than a point.

This cycle, in the open-seat race, Democrats are far better positioned. Craig, a former St. Jude medical executive, has the Democratic field to herself after her strongest primary opponent, physician Mary Lawrence, ended her campaign in January. Both women, who were challenging Kline before he announced his retirement, posted strong fundraising numbers, aided by substantial self-funding. Craig took in $1.2 million last year, including $682,600 in personal contributions and loans.

On the GOP side, excluding self funding, none of the Republicans raised more than Lewis's $103,000 in the most recent fundraising quarter. Howe had the most in his account at the end of 2015, about $643,000, but he put up $600,000 of his own money in the last two quarters. Miller, whom Kline endorsed earlier this month, entered the race in January and hasn’t had to file a fundraising report yet. Two-time Kline challenger David Gerson is also running.

National Republicans aren’t picking sides in the crowded race, but party observers are interested to see fundraising numbers from Miller—who, Kline told the Pioneer Press, “brings a lot” to the race.

Garofalo said he expects the primary to be a battle between Miller and whoever receives the state party endorsement in May, and that the party will unify around whoever is nominated in August.

But, he added, the top of the ticket “will be the primary factor.”

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