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
Add to Briefcase
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.”

What We're Following See More »
McConnell Pulls Nomination of Circuit Court Judge
11 hours ago
Trump Backtracks on Putin's "Incredible Offer"
11 hours ago
Russians Refer to "Verbal Agreements" with Trump
1 days ago

"Two days after President Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, Russian officials offered a string of assertions about what the two leaders had achieved. 'Important verbal agreements' were reached at the Helsinki meeting, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told reporters in Moscow Wednesday, including preservation of the New Start and INF agreements," and cooperation in Syria.

Trump Was Shown Proof of Russian Interference Before Inauguration
1 days ago

"Two weeks before his inauguration, Donald J. Trump was shown highly classified intelligence indicating that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had personally ordered complex cyberattacks to sway the 2016 American election. The evidence included texts and emails from Russian military officers and information gleaned from a top-secret source close to Mr. Putin, who had described to the C.I.A. how the Kremlin decided to execute its campaign of hacking and disinformation. Mr. Trump sounded grudgingly convinced, according to several people who attended the intelligence briefing. But ever since, Mr. Trump has tried to cloud the very clear findings that he received on Jan. 6, 2017, which his own intelligence leaders have unanimously endorsed."

Trump: High IQ People Loved the Putin Meeting
1 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.