Why House Democrats Could Have a Minnesota Problem

The party might have to recruit in as many as five districts, including three of their own that Trump won by double-digits.

Rep. Tim Walz
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Ally Mutnick
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Ally Mutnick
March 21, 2017, 8 p.m.

Demo­crats might need a few good House can­did­ates in Min­nesota this cycle, if three pop­u­lar Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents va­cate seats in the heart of the state’s Trump coun­try.

With Reps. Tim Walz and Rick No­lan eye­ing the open gov­ernor seat and Rep. Col­lin Peterson bi­en­ni­ally top­ping the re­tire­ment-watch list, Demo­crats could be forced to field re­cruits in pre­cisely the kind of rur­al dis­tricts that have been abandon­ing them, while also pro­du­cing chal­lengers for two GOP con­gress­men based in the Twin Cit­ies sub­urbs.

“Ob­vi­ously, if they de­cide to run for high­er of­ficer and/or re­tire, that presents unique chal­lenges for the Demo­crats as we fig­ure how to keep those seats,” said Ken Mar­tin, the state’s Demo­crat­ic-Farm­er-Labor Party chair­man, who touted the party’s in­fra­struc­ture and in­cum­bents’ per­son­al strengths as reas­ons they were able to hold all three last year.

Those three in­cum­bents, whose dis­tricts Don­ald Trump car­ried by the largest mar­gins of any Demo­crat­ic-held seats last cycle, are top GOP tar­gets in 2018. Walz and No­lan held on by less than 3,000 votes as Trump won their dis­tricts by 15 and 16 points, re­spect­ively. Mean­while, Trump car­ried Peterson’s West­ern Min­nesota dis­trict by 30 points, boost­ing an un­known chal­lenger who raised only $20,000 to with­in 5 points of un­seat­ing the con­gress­man, who won a 14th term.

Walz ap­pears al­most cer­tain to va­cate his seat. Mul­tiple sources in the state said Peterson en­dorsed Walz for gov­ernor Sat­urday at a loc­al DFL din­ner in Gran­ite Falls. Asked about his plans Monday, Walz told Na­tion­al Journ­al a de­cision will come in the “very near fu­ture.”

Demo­crats in­sisted the bench is deep for Walz’s dis­trict, which twice backed Barack Obama. Walz said he sensed buy­er’s re­morse among Trump voters watch­ing the de­bate over the GOP health care pro­pos­al.

“A midterm with a Trump pres­id­ency cer­tainly puts us in a strong po­s­i­tion,” Walz said. “And yes, I def­in­itely be­lieve we can hold that seat. With the ex­cep­tion of this last elec­tion, it al­ways runs just slightly cen­ter-right but pretty bal­anced, and I think it will come back to that point.”

Both Walz and No­lan stressed that they would make their statewide de­cisions in­de­pend­ently, with a field already get­ting crowded without them. The rur­al ap­peal that makes No­lan and Walz so in­dis­pens­able to the House Demo­crat­ic caucus is also the reas­on Min­nesota Demo­crats are ur­ging them to run statewide.

Yet Demo­crats in the state ques­tioned wheth­er there is space for two rur­al con­gress­men in the race, and Walz ap­pears to be fur­ther along in his de­cision-mak­ing pro­cess. No­lan sup­port­ers have formed a co­ali­tion to draft him, but No­lan said last week he hasn’t had time to fully con­sider a run and con­sult with the ap­pro­pri­ate party lead­ers.

Rep. Denny Heck, who leads re­cruit­ment for the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, de­scribed the rur­al dis­tricts as “tough seats even with the great in­cum­bents we have,” but he said he is con­fid­ent the two wouldn’t run against each oth­er for gov­ernor, cit­ing their strong friend­ship.

Still, the cal­cu­lus is com­plic­ated, es­pe­cially with 2021 re­dis­trict­ing loom­ing. No­lan said that if he wins his seat in 2018 but Demo­crats lose the gov­ernor­ship, it’s pos­sible “we saved it for one term and lost it for the next dec­ade” when Re­pub­lic­ans draw new dis­trict bound­ar­ies.

“Those are the kinds of tough de­cisions you have to factor in,” he said in an in­ter­view in the Cap­it­ol. “I wish I had a crys­tal ball; then I’d know ex­actly what to do.”

Re­pub­lic­ans plan to con­test the seats wheth­er they’re open or not. Rep. Steve Stivers, who chairs the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee, said they have prom­ising po­ten­tial can­did­ates for both Walz’s and No­lan’s seats. Peterson’s dis­trict, he con­ceded, would be more of a chal­lenge if the in­cum­bent stays put.

“I would rather be us than them if any of those seats are open,” Stivers said.

Peterson, a staunch ag­ri­cul­ture ad­voc­ate who reg­u­larly bucks his party, soun­ded un­con­vinced that Demo­crats could keep the seat without him: “I don’t know, but it’s just so Re­pub­lic­an.” He told Na­tion­al Journ­al he hasn’t de­cided yet if he’ll run again in 2018. “I’m ac­tu­ally hav­ing fun—so, might hang around,” he quipped.

Be­sides be­ing a re­cruit­ing head­ache, a slew of com­pet­it­ive races clustered in one state brings oth­er down­sides. No­lan had one of the most ex­pens­ive House races in the coun­try last cycle, draw­ing more than $20 mil­lion com­bined in can­did­ate and out­side spend­ing. That likely sapped some re­sources away from of­fens­ive op­por­tun­it­ies near the Twin Cit­ies, the DFL chair­man said, not­ing that an open­ing in Walz’s dis­trict could ex­acer­bate that prob­lem.

Though the DCCC hasn’t star­ted re­cruit­ing can­did­ates for Demo­crat­ic-held seats in Min­nesota that are not yet open, Heck said he con­stantly checks in with mem­bers con­sid­er­ing statewide runs to cre­ate a list of strong can­did­ates to re­place them.

Demo­crats will again tar­get the sub­urb­an, well-edu­cated dis­tricts of Reps. Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen. Lewis last year pulled off an up­set over wealthy health care ex­ec­ut­ive Angie Craig, who is con­sid­er­ing an­oth­er bid.

Paulsen won reelec­tion with 57 per­cent of the vote des­pite Hil­lary Clin­ton car­ry­ing the dis­trict by 9 points. Heck said Paulsen’s 2016 op­pon­ent, former state Sen. Terri Bonoff, isn’t in­ter­ested in run­ning again, but he hin­ted that the DCCC has already found a likely top-tier chal­lenger.

Oth­er re­matches are on the table.

Jim Haged­orn, a former Min­nesota con­gress­man’s son, who nearly un­seated Walz in a race that was not pre­vi­ously con­sidered com­pet­it­ive, has already launched his third at­tempt, and he said he has met with the NR­CC. Also mulling a third bid is Stew­art Mills, who in­ves­ted mil­lions to best No­lan in the up­state dis­trict that houses the state’s Iron Range and is the most Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing of the three rur­al seats.

“That com­pels me—if he’s run­ning—to want to run for the House again,” No­lan said. “Make sure he doesn’t get elec­ted.”

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