Politics

Minnesota Democrats Steer Clear of Republicans’ Controversial Comments About Women

Jason Lewis and Jim Hagedorn have both been attacked in past races for their comments

Jim Hagedorn, the GOP nominee in Minnesota’s open 1st District, said things he wrote about on his political blog have been well-publicized in all his previous races, but that he’s worked to get known in the district for who he is. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

NEW PRAGUE, Minn. — A Minnesota Republican congressman once called young, single women “non-thinking.” Another GOP candidate once referred to Washington state’s female senators as “bimbos.”

But don’t expect their Democratic opponents to make hay of those old remarks this year. That’s a change from 2016, and perhaps a surprising one, given that in today’s national environment, Democratic women are energized like never before.

Still, the decision by Democrats in two of the nation’s most competitive House races to steer clear of their Republican opponents’ offensive comments about women is yet another reminder that the party sees economic issues as its best path to victory in this year’s midterms. 

ICYMI: As Early Voting Begins, A Look at Minnesota’s Uber-Competitive House Races

Minnesota’s 2nd District

When Jason Lewis first ran for Congress in 2016, the Republican was nicknamed a mini-Trump for some of the controversial things he had said as a radio talk show host. 

His Democratic opponent, Angie Craig, made those comments a central part of her campaign against him. A late September TV spot played audio of Lewis’ comments about slavery and women. Another ad, launched just before Election Day, featured a Republican voter talking to the camera about how he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Lewis because he “bullies people, he insults women and minorities.”

Those attacks didn’t win the election for Craig. She was leading in the polls up until the election, ultimately losing by less than 2 points. It’s hard to say how much of her loss was because those attacks fell flat and how much had to do with the national environment or a third-party candidate taking nearly 8 percent of the vote.

But in her rematch with Lewis this year, Craig isn’t talking about his comments, despite national media outlets resurfacing many more of his old radio monologues this summer

“The truth is, I don’t bring it up,” she said in an interview here late last month. “If people want to know, what do I disagree with Jason Lewis on, I’m focused on his votes for the American Health Care Act, I’m focused on the tax bill he voted for.”

Craig put out statements condemning Lewis’ remarks this summer. Her son even recorded a video in response to unearthed comments Lewis had made about same-sex parents. 

But that condemnation isn’t part of the Democrat’s message on the trail and definitely not part of her paid communications like it was in 2016. 

“From time to time, it gets brought up, and I say I hope and I trust the district concludes that this doesn’t represent our values, but that’s up to the voters of Minnesota,” she said. 

Craig is using a different media firm this cycle, and her spots have stayed mostly positive. To the extent outside groups are digging into Lewis’ past comments, it’s mostly about money and access — not, for example, what Lewis has said about women not knowing what GDP means.  

A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spot from September plays audio of Lewis on his radio show in 2011 saying, “Money … it’s a good way to measure how valuable people are.” Craig used the same quote in an October 2016 ad. The DCCC’s research synopsis on Lewis doesn’t even mention his comments about women or slavery. 

In Lewis’ first TV ad this year, he alludes to his reputation for saying controversial things.

“I’m not the most popular guy in Washington, especially with the politically correct politicians who want me to do things their way,” he says, speaking to the camera. “That’s why they take my words out of context and tell you I’m extreme.”

In an interview in his district last month, Lewis said he’d welcome Democrats putting more money behind the kinds of attacks they ran about his talk-show past in 2016.

“It’s like old news here. Because they spent so much money on it last time, people are going, ‘Really? That again?’ So yeah, I hope they spend more money,” he said. 

Minnesota’s 1st District 

Down in southern Minnesota, where Republicans are trying to flip an open seat that President Donald Trump won by 15 points in 2016, the GOP nominee makes the same argument: His past controversial comments about women and Native American written on his blog are old news. 

While National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers professed ignorance about Jim Hagedorn’s blogging to reporters, the three-time nominee said in an interview at his campaign office last month that the comments have been well-publicized in the 1st District since he first sought the GOP nomination in 2010. 

His comments resurfaced in this year’s GOP primary. State Sen. Carla Nelson earned the support of female members of Congress and other Republicans who worried that Hagedorn’s history would make him unelectable in November. But he prevailed by nearly 30 points. 

Facing a House map where Republicans are largely on defense, this district is one of the party’s only pickup opportunities. But some Republicans continue to doubt Hagedorn’s ability to capitalize on it. 

“A lot is going to depend on when and how the Democrats use this treasure trove of previous comments against him and how his campaign responds to it,” one Republican strategist said. 

When asked whether he or voters raise the issue of Hagedorn’s past comments, Democratic-Farmer-Labor nominee Dan Feehan didn’t directly answer. 

“My opponent, the contrast that I think is there, is what voters know is a clear statement of support for the president and everything that comes with him,” he said. “He represents the cynical politics that people have become used to.”

But Hagedorn’s comments and a comparison to the president aren’t anywhere to be found in Feehan’s paid communication — his message is all about health care and overhauling the political system. 

It’s telling that what the DCCC’s research synopsis on Hagedorn does highlight from his blog are his comments about veterans, which could be more politically salient in a district where the Democratic nominee is an Iraq veteran and where the DFL incumbent, Tim Walz, is also a veteran and is polling well in his bid for governor.

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