The political office opening drew insider hopefuls and outsider opportunists alike, and finally the field has cleared.
On one side is an entrepreneur and media personality, whose blunt rhetoric is refreshingly honest to some, simply offensive to others. On the other, a tough female leader with moderate positions, ties to big business, and a penchant for pantsuits.
This is not a story about the presidential race.
When U.S. Rep. John Kline (R-MN) announced he wouldn’t run for reelection in Minnesota’s Second Congressional district, the political floodgates flew open. The crowd that sought that seat, thought to be one of the few true toss-ups in Congress, has been whittled down to two.
Presumptive Republican nominee Jason Lewis, a former radio jockey on conservative talk stations, will try to defend the GOP-held seat against Democratic nominee Angie Craig, a former business leader at St. Jude Medical. The shape of the general election contest bears an eerie similarity to the presidential race. Both face-offs feature women who are studied on the issues and rarely off-message, versus a loud-mouth man who is known to make outlandish comments but has excited unusual voter groups.
The district is a perfect scene for a partisan battle. Despite Kline’s seven re-elections since first winning the seat in 2002, the area’s presidential votes are much less tied to party allegiance. In 2008, John McCain won the district by just 2 percent over Barack Obama, and in 2012, Obama edged Mitt Romney out by 0.1 percent.
Craig's sole opponent, Mary Lawrence, withdrew from the race in January and endorsed Craig, allowing her to start thinking about November months before Lewis can. Despite his endorsement by the 2nd Congressional District GOP, Lewis must first win a primary against three other Republicans.
Craig has shaped her general campaign around common sense reforms and political compromise. “You can have a competing viewpoint on how to solve a problem," she says, "but your tone and an element of civility still should be part of your approach if you’re in Congress."
Politically, this approach creates moderate positions that are inviting to independent and less politically polarized voters. It's also easy to contrast those beliefs with her opponent’s venomous statements.
Michael Brodkorb, a former Republican operative who lives in the district, says Lewis “has been identified previously as a mini-Trump . . . Lewis’s problem — one of his many problems— is some of the same kind of incendiary comments that Trump has made. Some of them, I would argue, are much worse.”
Examples? On his radio show in 2012, Lewis once described young single women as “non-thinking,” saying they care only about “abortion,” “gay marriage,” and “The View.” And in a 2011 book, Lewis argued that the Civil War — “the War Between the States,” he called it, a curious construction for a northerner — had “more to do with secession” than slavery.
Lewis has called the use of his past rhetoric "drive-by allegations," and says his words were taken out of context.
"Jason Lewis is a great example of the Trump era of the Republican party," Craig says. "His tone and lack of civility is exactly what we don’t need more of in Congress today.”
[pdf-1] Matthew Kowalski, chair of the CD2 Republican Committee, disagrees. Both Trump and Lewis come from outside the "political mainstream," he concedes, but their similarities end there.
“They’re quite different,' Kowalski says. "I think Trump is not really appealing to a lot of the logical arguments, things that Lewis really dives into. Trump really appeals to more people’s emotions and just being against all the crap in Washington D.C. and the federal government.”
The Jason Lewis campaign declined to comment for this article, but Brodkorb notes that the candidate seems comfortable associating with Trump, and also thinks “the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) [is] going to work hard to tie Donald Trump to any of the candidates down ballot.”
Minnesota's Republicans tend to do better in lower turnout years, and Brodkorb says Lewis needs low “voter intensity from Democrats” in order to win. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump won their party’s primary in Minnesota. In a national race where there is little excitement about either candidate, the stronger messages have been about voting to block the other candidate, a strategy that has already inspired sayings like “anybody but Hillary” and “Never Trump.”
In a district that has split the ballot previously, it's possible that the Democrat will win one race and the Republican will win the other. But it might be difficult to vote for different parties in two races where the candidates look so strikingly similar.