Politics

GOP Primaries Will Shape Democratic Prospects in Two Must-Win Seats

With Minnesota and Wisconsin Republicans retiring, Democrats have opportunity to flip seats

Democrats are eager to hit Jason Lewis, who's running in the GOP primary in Minnesota's 2nd District, for controversial comments he's made about women and slavery. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Two open-seats in the upper Midwest could be key to the Democratic Party's efforts to win the House this fall.

Democrats already have hand-picked their candidates. But GOP primaries on Tuesday will settle whom those candidates will face — and their chances in November. 

Republicans have long held Minnesota’s 2nd District and Wisconsin’s 8th District. But the retirements of Reps. John Kline and Reid Ribble have made these seats competitive in November.

Kline and Ribble each have a favorite in the primaries. They hope that their choices can over perform Donald Trump in two districts that could be tough for the GOP presidential nominee to win.

Four Republicans are vying for the GOP nomination in Minnesota's 2nd District. None have raised competitive money compared to Democrat Angie Craig, a health care executive who's had the primary field to herself since January and has amassed a $1.7 million war chest. 

[The Seats Democrats Must Win to Retake the House]

Like 'three turtles'

“It’s like three turtles running for the finish line," GOP consultant Bob Kish said of the three biggest-name Republicans in the primary.

Kish is working for one of them — former state Sen. John Howe, who's nominally running, but only raised $100 during the pre-primary reporting period. 

The leading candidates are former radio talk show host Jason Lewis and businesswoman Darlene Miller. 

Neither Republican was the party's first choice for this district. Kline tried to recruit bigger name candidates, but many — like Minnesota's former first lady Mary Pawlenty — passed on the race.

Minnesota's convention process for nominating candidates doesn't help field strong general election recruits, Kish said, because it tends to reward Republicans who appeal to the conservative grassroots.

Lewis won that convention backing, and he's the favorite going into this race because of his higher name recognition. 

But Miller is Kline's choice.

On paper, Miller, who served on President Barack Obama's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, looks like a strong establishment-backed candidate. And the day before the primary, she sounded confident.

Retiring Rep. John Kline has backed businesswoman Darlene Miller in Minnesota's 2nd District. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call)
Retiring Rep. John Kline has backed businesswoman Darlene Miller in Minnesota's 2nd District. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call)

"We put together a plan seven months ago," she said. "And I have to say, we followed it to a T."

She's received financial assistance from Tennessee Rep. Diane Black, Alabama Rep. Martha Roby, Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler, Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, Alabama Rep. Mike D. Rogers, Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole and former Connecticut Senate candidate Linda McMahon — among others.

And she's banking on the endorsement from Kline, who's cut ads for her, and has suggested that she's the only candidate who can win in November.

But Miller hasn't run the campaign establishment Republicans may have hoped. She raised only $168,000 during the 2nd quarter of 2016. That's still more than the $127,000 Lewis raised during the 2nd quarter.

Both Lewis and Miller maintain that their fundraising will take off if they win the primary.

"We expect beginning Wednesday we won’t have any trouble raising money," Lewis campaign spokesman Michael Osskopp said Tuesday.

Likewise, Miller said, "I'm not worried."

GOP Rep. Tom Emmer has backed Lewis, calling him the "strongest conservative in the race," but Lewis generally has far less support from Washington, D.C.

What he does have is his name — he was on the air for years — and the backing of the state party, which he won at the May nominating convention. 

His radio background, though, has haunted him. Some Republicans fear that his past controversial comments he made on the radio about "young, single women," slavery, the Civil War and whites "committing cultural suicide" will be a liability in the general.

[Mini Trump Sounds Like the Nominee

Lewis stands by those comments but maintains that they have been taken out of context by his opponents and the media.

It's his willingness to be politically incorrect that has inspired comparisons to Trump. 

"All the politically correct politicians do is attack people like you and me who want real change," Lewis says in a cable TV spot.

Democrats are eager to package his comments into general election ads, and they hope Craig will be too much for Lewis to overcome in a district that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, not Trump, carried in the presidential caucus. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call rates the seat Tilts Democrat.

"Republicans are going to have a very tough time holding this seat with Jason Lewis," Kish said.

[Republicans Pass on Race to Replace Kline]

While Lewis' comments have earned him early comparisons to Trump, there's someone even closer to Trump in this race. Matthew Erickson, the former Minnesota spokesman for the Trump campaign, launched a campaign in May, but he failed to even file a pre-primary financial report with the FEC.

Replacing Ribble

Ribble, who's leaving the House just shy of serving the four terms he pledged to limit himself to, is firmly in the "Never Trump" camp.

But the Republicans vying to replace him have all said they will support the nominee, including Ribble's chosen successor, Mike Gallagher.

The 32-year-old Marine Corps veteran is a former foreign policy adviser to Gov. Scott Walker's presidential campaign and former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer.

Gallagher has outraised his closest opponent in the primary, state Sen. Frank Lasee, and is the favorite going into the primary.

The winner will face Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, who's amassed an impressive war chest. Democrats have reserved nearly $1 million in TV ad time for this tossup race for the fall. 

Contact Pathé at  simonepathe@rollcall.com  and follow her on Twitter at  @sfpathe.

Correction: A previous version of this story misattributed a comment about the value of Minnesota's convention process for selecting candidates.

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