The Long Shot and the Colonel
At six o'clock on a Sunday evening in mid-October, the line to get into the Northfield Senior Citizens' Hog Roast is more than a hundred people thick. This is good news for Teresa Daly. It grants plenty of opportunity for the 48-year-old Democrat, who is seeking to oust first-term Congressman John Kline, to press the flesh as folks wait for their slabs of pork and scalloped potatoes.
"I'm Teresa Daly; I'm running for U.S. Congress," the Burnsville City Council member cheerfully repeats as she works her way down the line. Most conversations don't extend beyond a polite handshake and perhaps a brief quip about the local high school football team, or how much hog remains to be eaten.
Donald Summers, however, has a few things to say to the would-be congresswoman. The retired 68-year-old from Farmington, dressed in two-tone golf shoes and a polo shirt, enthusiastically voices his support for Daly's candidacy. He also tells her about a coffee-shop owner in his hometown who, fed up with the Bush administration, intends to vote Democrat for the first time in her life. Daly nods knowingly at the woman's frustration, vowing to stop by the coffee shop the next time she's in Farmington.
After the candidate moves on down the line, Summers explains why he's supporting her. "Because we want change," he says, referring to his Republican representative. "I voted for Kline last time. I like John Kline and everything, but things aren't going the way they should."
More specifically, Summer expresses concern about inflation, particularly the price of gas. But he's also worried about the war in Iraq. He believes it's wrong for National Guard troops to be bearing such a large burden in the conflict. "I can't justify a 37-year-old guy that's got two kids and a job here going over there," says Summers. He believes a draft would be a more equitable solution.
"I feel like I've been happy with Kline prior to this," Summers concludes as he nears the front of the chow line, "but Lord Almighty, something's got to change."
Naturally, Daly is hoping that there are many more voters like Summers in the Second Congressional District. The area, which was redistricted after the 2000 census, covers parts of seven counties in the southern metro area, sprawling from suburban Inver Grove Heights in the north to rural Pine Island in the south, and from Red Wing in the east to Waconia in the west. It's still a largely conservative swath of the state, and voted overwhelmingly for Republicans Norm Coleman and Tim Pawlenty in 2002.
In that same election, the Second District congressional race pitted incumbent DFLer Bill Luther against Kline for the third time. In the previous two showdowns, Luther had garnered narrow victories. The 2002 contest was the most expensive congressional race in Minnesota history, with the two candidates spending almost $4 million combined, and an additional $3 million being pumped into the contest by the national parties. Television commercials were ubiquitous, with each side airing some 2,000 ads during the final five weeks of the campaign.
The race was also notable for its nasty attacks. Neither side bothered to hide disdain for the opposition. Kline repeatedly questioned the incumbent's ethics, while Luther savaged his opponent's positions as risky and irresponsible. Luther's campaign stooped particularly low by having a supporter, Samuel Garst, file for the congressional seat under the banner of the "No New Taxes" party-a naked ploy to draw votes from the fiscally conservative Kline.
Both candidates believed they were going to eke out a victory heading into election day, but the end result was not close: Kline prevailed by an 11-point margin (this despite the fact that phantom candidate Garst drew more than 4 percent of the vote). Political observers lay much of the blame for Luther's defeat on fallout from the Paul Wellstone memorial service.
"I think that probably the most important thing was what I would loosely call the Ventura vote," says Bill Flanigan, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota who studied the Kline-Luther race. "The people who don't like politicians, who don't like political parties, who often don't participate, were riled up by the memorial service and turned up in unusual numbers."
Daly argues that political dynamics have changed in her favor during the last 24 months. "2002 was a very different year," she says in an interview at her campaign headquarters in a nondescript Burnsville office park. "We were post-9/11. We were pre-the war in Iraq. Bush was in high favor, and there were big coattails there."
The neophyte politician, who has served just one term on the Burnsville City Council, turned heads this summer when it was announced that her campaign had raked in more than half a million dollars. The stocked war chest signaled that, at the least, Daly would be able to assemble a credible campaign staff and be a visible presence both through TV and direct mail. With the overwhelming majority of House incumbents, both in Minnesota and across the country, firmly entrenched in their seats, the Second Congressional District race was suddenly on the national political radar screen.
Last month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added Daly to its "Red to Blue" list of targeted Republican seats. Her campaign is one of 22 nationwide that the national committee intends to pump resources into in hopes of gaining House seats that are now controlled by the GOP. According to the Daly campaign, a poll it commissioned in June showed Kline with just 39 percent support.
Even so, Daly faces a decidedly uphill battle. The Cook Political Report, a nationally respected journal of Beltway prognostication, lists the race as "likely Republican." And most political observers believe it would take a seismic shift in the political landscape-on a par with the Republican landslide of 1994 or the fallout from the Wellstone memorial in 2002-to give Daly a decent shot at prevailing. "I think that the fact that Kline beat a well-funded, strong, Democratic incumbent last time around really speaks to how tough it will be for Daly to win in this district," says Amy Walter, the Cook Political Report's congressional expert. "By the numbers, it is a Republican district."
Daly's a decidedly moderate DFLer, more in the mode of Democrat-turned-Independent Tim Penny than Paul Wellstone. She's charismatic and articulate on subjects that are part of the daily political discourse: Iraq, No Child Left Behind, Social Security. But she sometimes falters when forced to ad lib, struggling to make small talk on the stump or respond to policy questions that she hasn't previously vetted.
When asked if she supports the Dream Act, a federal legislative proposal that would allow undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for at least five years to receive in-state tuition rates at public universities, Daly initially offers boilerplate pabulum ("America is a nation of immigrants..."). When further pressed on the issue, she punts. "It's very complicated," Daly ventures. "I have read parts of that Dream Act, but I'm not sure that I know enough about it to really comment on it intelligently today."
At times her political inexperience has been apparent. In the first face-to-face debate between the two candidates earlier this month in Eagan, Daly stated that she supported doubling the number of active Army divisions. When Kline expressed disbelief that she really wanted to double the size of the Army, Daly failed to amend her stand. Only after consulting with her staff when the debate was over did Daly explain to the media that she'd meant to say that she supported adding two army divisions.
Such gaffes have led some DFLers to lament that Coleen Rowley-the high-profile FBI whistleblower who briefly flirted with entering the race-ultimately decided not to take on Kline. There's an uneasy worry that this is the best the Democrats could muster against a vulnerable incumbent.
As with presidential candidate John Kerry at the national level, Daly's painstaking moderation has made it difficult to distinguish herself on arguably the most pressing issue of the campaign-ted that she would have voted for the resolution to authorize the president's use of force. "The information that we had from our president was that we were under imminent threat, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that he intended to use them, and he intended to use them soon," she notes. "That's what I base that decision on."
But when asked if she would still support such a resolution today-even after it's been conclusively shown that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, a functional nuclear arms program, or significant ties to al Qaeda-she dodges the question. "I think our conversation is better spent around what are we going to do now," she says.
There's no question where John Kline stands on the war in Iraq. He's been an enthusiastic supporter since day one, hardly questioning the president's policies even as the insurgency-and the American body count-has swelled. "Assumptions were made in wartime and some of them were wrong," Kline admits during a phone interview from his office in Washington. He acknowledges that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction and that the insurgency has proven much more resilient than anticipated. Yet he still insists that the administration's actions in Iraq have been justified and effective: "Have we made mistakes? Absolutely. And are we going to make some more? Yep, we are."
Kline's support for President Bush certainly does not end with the Iraq war. He's a staunch conservative Republican who voted with his party some 98 percent of the time over the last two years, a loyalty rate higher than that of any other member of the Minnesota congressional delegation. "I have been on the record saying many times that I vote overwhelmingly as a conservative Republican," Kline says. "That's how I campaigned. That's what I told people I would do."
Like President Bush, he's a devoted believer in the sanctity of the free market, endorsing such dubious Republican propositions as partially privatizing Social Security. In the past, Kline has spoken admirably of the prospect of a national sales tax replacing the income tax. And last month, he was named a "Friend of the Taxpayer" by Americans for Tax Reform, the chief conservative advocates for dismantling the federal tax system.
The former Texan's political persona is culled entirely from his background as a Marine officer. He prefers Colonel Kline to Congressman Kline. At every opportunity he reminds voters that he carried the "nuclear football" for presidents Reagan and Carter, meaning he was responsible for safeguarding the codes needed to detonate a missile. Even after a full term in Congress, Kline's first commercials in the 2004 campaign make no mention of issues, instead focusing on his days as a nuclear nanny.
The Kline camp displays little concern about the congressman's vulnerability, not even bothering to hire a professional to run his campaign. "The groundwork for Teresa Daly to win this campaign simply does not exist," scoffs Steve Sutton, the congressman's chief of staff. He says that the Kline campaign conducted a poll in early October that showed the incumbent with a commanding lead, although he declines to make the data available. "It shows that we do not need a campaign manager," he says.
The Kline campaign has leveled three attacks at Daly in an attempt to derail her campaign before it can gain any traction. There have been accusations of her running for Congress simply for the money, of being negligent in her duties as a City Council member (she missed 11 meetings in her first 17 months in the post; the Burnsville City Council meets three times per month), and of supporting John Kline in 2002. The latter assertion is probably the most damaging. Daly admits to attending two Kline fundraisers that year, contributing $50 to his campaign, but says that she ultimately decided to support Luther after learning more about the Republican challenger.
Sutton has a less charitable analysis, arguing that Daly opted to publicly support Kline because it would help her campaign for the City Council in GOP-friendly Burnsville. "While she was privately supporting Bill Luther she was publicly supporting John Kline," he asserts. "She put personal ambition ahead of personal belief. Is that not an issue?"
Daly believes that Kline is resorting to personal attacks because he doesn't want to run on his congressional record. "I am disappointed that the only communication that the people of this district have even heard from him, their congressman in this campaign, are three personal attack pieces against me," she says. "That's all he's done in this campaign. I don't think that's what people want to hear from their congressman."
Daly has tried to counterpunch, asserting that Kline has failed to support transportation and police funding for Minnesota, and that he's paved the way for pharmaceutical companies to reap unsavory profits by voting for the Medicare prescription drug bill last year. Most audaciously, given Kline's background, she's gone after him for failing to adequately support benefits for veterans.
As in the 2002 Second District congressional race, neither Kline nor Daly bother to hide their antipathy for each other. While questions about the viability of Daly's campaign persist-despite her fundraising acumen-there's no doubt that Kline will respond to any perceived threat during the final two weeks of the campaign with the political equivalent of shock and awe. "If she takes a slap at John, it will be ugly," Sutton promises. "It will be ugly."
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