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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