Next November is a long way off but to those who follow politics, the next election starts the day after the last one. Two Minnesota congressional races have interested me this early because while they involve very different men, in somewhat different districts, early indications suggest one understands the new political zeitgeist while the other hopes nothing has changed.
Rep. Jason Lewis wasn’t supposed to win according to the local smart set, many of whom actually hoped he would lose and, in various ways, worked toward that end. He did, of course, beating an opponent who outspent him four or five to one. Rep. Erik Paulsen won and was widely expected to, running essentially the same campaign that he has for several cycles, with the small exception of declaring he wouldn’t vote for his party’s candidate for president, who, awkwardly, went on to win in something of a political earthquake.
The political landscape has been fundamentally altered with the election of President Trump, even in Minnesota although far too many establishment republicans remain in active denial about this. How elected officials, and the political ecosphere that surrounds them, deal with this new development offers clues to the election slightly more than a year hence.
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Lewis, as befits a first term member, immediately set to task raising money for his reelection. Some things remain the same in politics and money is one of them. His fundraising numbers have been strong to date and likely will remain so going forward.
As a freshman, Lewis has played his role as a dependable vote in the Republican House majority. He also, however, has been strong in detailing what he hopes to accomplish in Congress, even if that necessarily will take time. Essentially, what he offered voters in his campaign he is now following through on, explaining and, at times, vigorously defending that path. There’s no scent of weakness or defensiveness from him, especially when dealing with the astroturf opposition at which Minnesota Democrats excel.
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The same cannot be said of Paulsen, who appears to be in a permanent, defensive crouch. He’s seeking his fifth term next year with little accomplished to show for it (we’re all against human trafficking, Erik, give it a rest). Numerous free trips abroad paid for by benefactors only adds to the image of an incumbent who enjoys the perks of the job more than the job of delivering actual results for his constituents.
To be honest, I wish he were more consistently conservative. To be fair, I fully understand that his district is something of a needle that needs to be carefully threaded. His votes are (mostly) there when needed and it would be churlish of me not to acknowledge that.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that he’s in the process of losing his race while Lewis is in the process of winning his. Dean Phillips is a formidable candidate who already is working flat out to replace him. His campaign is staffed with smart, savvy people who know just where to stick the knife in. You know this because of how Paulsen responds.
That is: the Phillips campaign has Paulsen on the run, making him appear defensive and ad hoc in his responses. It frequently seems there’s no there there. Failing to show in the Edina Fourth of July parade, only to have your slot taken over by your opponents, is the political equivalent of wearing a “kick me” sign on your back.
It’s been six years since Paulsen has held a townhall. I’m wise to the weaponized aspects of them, courtesy of the Regressive Left, but at some point he’ll have to have one. The hashtag #Sept6x6 has been deftly employed on Twitter to remind people of that fact.
The old ways of campaigning for him, the Jim Ramstad playbook, may no longer work. A billboard extolling him working with Sen. Amy Klobuchar now seems like something out of a pre-Trump museum of uni-party swamp politics.
Crucially, Paulsen has little connection to the activist base in his district and by design. He’s in politics for himself and his staff. This has been enough so far but it has understandably engendered little love from the broader Republican community. Given what looks to be a strong Phillips campaign, he may need them this cycle in ways that he never did before.
It takes little imagination to think that if he turns to them out of necessity this cycle, they won’t be there. Really, how could they be when they were ignored for years upon years?
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I want both men to win reelection but at this juncture only Lewis seems to possess the confidence to know how to do so. Paulsen seems beset by inauthenticity, an almost tangible phoniness, unable to show to constituents that he stands with them rather than with the assemblage of special interests who have funded him his entire political career.
That used to work and the economic successes of President Trump by next year may be enough to help him win. He certainly did better than Trump last November but he’s lost his footing since then and shows little sign of getting it back.
Next year’s elections are already nationalized, putting Paulsen in a box: does he now support a President he didn’t vote for? Equivocating on this question will only reinforce pre-existing narratives of weakness, expediency and a lack of core convictions.
This week Decision Desk HQ rated the chances of Paulsen losing to a generic Democrat at 54%. Yes it’s early, but a rating like that this far out for an incumbent seeking his fifth term, and who won last year by 13 points, suggests that the past isn’t always prologue.
Image credit: WCCO television
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In addition to Alpha News, John Gilmore is also a contributor to The Hill. He is the founder and executive director of Minnesota Media Monitor.™ He blogs at MinnesotaConservatives.org and is on Twitter under @Shabbosgoy. He can be reached at Wbua@nycunarjfza.pbz