The League of Women Voters takes its candidate forums seriously, hoping to make sure voters are as informed as possible. Nothing cuts through the hype and noise like having all sides in the same room, answering questions with no filter.
“Forums are one of the few ways to get a true response out of candidates,” Executive Director Michelle Witte says.
Only one thing tends to throw a wrench in the gears: candidates who want no part of a forum they can’t control. The League has sent out several invitations to Republican Congressman Erik Paulsen. He hasn’t responded.
“I’m pretty sure it’s a ‘no,’” Witte says.
Paulsen is trying to keep his seat representing Minnesota’s third district, which covers most of the Hennepin County suburbs. Rival Dean Phillips, the liberal heir to the Phillips Distilling Company fortune, has already agreed to take his spot at the podium. He’s been using Paulsen’s lack of response as a political jab, even publicly inviting him to join in on his own forum. Paulsen didn’t respond to that offer either -- nor did he respond to City Pages’ interview requests.
Paulsen has been historically hard to pin down. So far, he has agreed to only one appearance with Phillips at the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce, sponsored by Minnesota’s Credit Unions and Xcel Energy. It will cost you $60 to attend if you’re not a TwinWest member, and $35 if you are. Paulsen sparred against Terri Bonoff at the same venue in 2016.
The congressman like considers the chamber a friendly crowd, since his record is stridently pro-business, off voting against the interests of his constituents. And that's left him seemingly avoiding encounters with voters at all costs.
Even solo appearances are in short supply. His town hall in May was his first in seven years. Constituents have repeatedly challenged him to appear before them in person, even held a town hall for him in 2017 in an attempt to get him to address President Donald Trump’s stances on immigration and health care. Paulsen didn’t show.
Congressional Republicans have developed a twinge of fear over their suburban constituents. These relatively well-off, educated voters have little in common with the working-class regions that elected President Donald Trump, and have little tolerance for compulsory Trumpism within the Republican Party. The 21 Republicans voted most vulnerable to Democratic takeover by the Cook Political Report represent voters with a median household income 33 percent higher than the national average.
Paulsen’s district, which he’s won handily in years past, has been downgraded to a “toss-up” by the Sabato Crystal Ball and the Cook Political Report. His campaign has attempted to distance him from the president on key Minnesota issues, like mining in the Boundary Waters. But he has also voted with Trump 98 percent of the time, and that record will be hard to hide in an open forum.
The League forum is relatively high-profile, nonpartisan, and free. It’s a perfect chance to show voters who you really are.
Given his record, that may not be what Paulsen is going for.