Democratic Rep. Tim Walz was happy to show off a major Republican group’s footage of his recent town hall.
The video, promoted by the Republican Governors Association, showed the candidate for Minnesota governor bemoaning the Democratic National Committee’s instruction to ignore the Affordable Care Act’s “warts.”
“I’m retweeting the RGA’s attack on me,” Walz said last week, “because there are areas of the ACA that are failing my constituents,” even as he stressed that “a vast number of people benefitted” from the law.
Walz holds the unique position of being the only Rust Belt Democrat in the House who is running statewide in 2018, making himself a test case as his party seeks to climb back from the minority while holding onto rightward-trending rural districts like Walz’s.
Walz, a former Army National Guardsman, also pumps the brakes on Democrats’ other major congressional push: the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. While Walz wants Congress to investigate the “threat,” he says the issue “doesn’t boil up as the first thing [voters] talk about,” even if he takes “a little flak” from the Left for saying so.
“I think it would be prudent for us to quit trying to find the middle of the politics and find the middle of their lives,” Walz said.
Meanwhile, Republicans are entering their fifth straight cycle of attacking the national health care law even as a GOP-controlled Congress struggles to pass a replacement plan.
RGA spokesman Jon Thompson in an email accused Walz of being “disingenuous” in his handling of the issue, highlighting Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton’s October remark that “the Affordable Care Act is no longer affordable to increasing numbers of people.”
“Congressman Walz voted for Obamacare, Obamacare is imploding, and no matter how hard he tries to walk it back, Minnesota voters won’t forget that he has been a strong supporter of President Obama’s failed health law,” Thompson said.
The congressman faces a crowded field of primary opponents to replace Dayton, who isn’t seeking reelection. Walz, a former geography teacher, will need to win rural votes—including in his Rochester- and Mankato-based seat—to complement progressive turnout in the Twin Cities.
Walz’s electoral path is not unique. Dayton, a former senator, won the 2010 gubernatorial primary by doing well in the Iron Range and rural Minnesota. He went on to narrowly defeat now-Rep. Tom Emmer.
“I think anyone who’s running in the primary is going to try to mirror that path,” said Justin Perpich, who led an unsuccessful effort to draft rural Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan into the race.
Walz’s statewide bid has left open a vulnerable congressional seat. Democrats don’t have a clear front-runner in Walz’s district, which voted for Donald Trump by nearly 15 points in November. Republican Jim Hagedorn is already making a third bid for the seat. He came within 2,500 votes of unseating Walz in 2016, despite the incumbent’s fundraising advantage.
“After 12 years of a liberal Democrat on most of the issues, I think they’re ready for a change back to the Republican Party,” Hagedorn said. “We’re very optimistic, but we’re going to work hard. We take nothing for granted.”
Republicans have not won the governor’s mansion—or any statewide office in Minnesota—since 2006. But Trump came within 2 points of snapping the state’s historic run of backing Democratic presidential candidates, and the legislature is controlled by Republicans.
Walz views the race as a high-stakes battle for Democrats in Minnesota, joking that his slogan should be “Walz or Wisconsin?” in reference to conservative policies enacted in the neighboring Badger State under Gov. Scott Walker.
Walz will still have to win over Democrats in Minneapolis and St. Paul, edging out local competitors like St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman as well as current Twin-Cities-area state Reps. Paul Thissen and Erin Murphy, who both served in legislative leadership. State Auditor Rebecca Otto is also running, and strategists are watching state Attorney General Lori Swanson’s likely entrance as well.
“It is absolutely critical for a Democrat to do extremely well in the Twin Cities,” Coleman said in an interview in May, noting that Hillary Clinton carried the state by doing well there in November. “But as Democrats,” he added, “we need to do much better in greater Minnesota.”
Walz also runs the risk of alienating progressive activists, who have an outsized influence in Minnesota. The state party will endorse a candidate at its annual convention two months before the August primary. Walz, like the rest of the field, has not ruled out running in the primary against the party-endorsed candidate.
“It’s a perilous place to be to criticize Obamacare and the impact of it, even though it’s facing challenges,” said one Democratic consultant with experience in the state. “DFLers in the state are obviously very protective of Obama’s legacy, and they see [Obamacare] as such a huge part of that.”
For his part, DFL Chair Ken Martin worries about “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” given the “late, crowded primary” and “the landscape.”
“Tim’s a great candidate; we have a lot of good candidates in the field,” Martin said. “But we could certainly lose this race.”
Correction: This story originally stated Republicans have not held a statewide office in Minnesota since 2006. That is the year they last won a statewide election there.