Without seven-term GOP Rep. John Kline on the ballot, Democrats in Minnesota suddenly have a much better shot at flipping a district President Barack Obama carried twice.
The question now is which of two Democratic women will be the candidate. So far, Minnesota's Democratic delegation isn't choosing sides between health care executive Angie Craig and physician Mary Lawrence.
"I’ve talked to [Amy] Klobuchar, [Al] Franken, [Keith] Ellison and [Betty] McCollum, and they’ve all been very enthusiastic," Lawrence told CQ Roll Call Thursday. Craig's campaign said she's been in conversation with the state's congressional delegation, too. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and EMILY's List aren't picking favorites either, although both organizations have been in touch with the women.
“We are watching this race closely and are committed to making sure that we see the families of the Second District being represented by a pro-choice Democratic woman," EMILY's List Press Secretary Rachel Thomas said in a statement Wednesday.
Both women fit that profile.
Neither candidate was comfortable talking about the other candidate. But the difference in styles was apparent in separate interviews with each candidate.
"The difference is that I can win," Lawrence said.
"It’s pretty clear that now Kline has decided that I can win, and he’s decided to retire," Lawrence added. (Kline, who won re-election in November by 17 points, told reporters Wednesday in his Rayburn office that being term-limited out of his committee chairmanship had much to do with his decision to retire at the end of this Congress.) With more than $1 million in cash on hand at the end of the second quarter, Lawrence's coffers outdo Craig's $231,000 war chest. But excluding the $800,000 she's loaned to her campaign, Lawrence has raised only slightly more than Craig. She brought in about $333,000 in the first two quarters, compared to Craig's $327,000 haul in the second quarter (the only quarter she's filed with the Federal Elections Commission). In the second quarter alone, Craig raised more.
Craig cited the “incredible friends and colleagues” she met in 22 years in business when asked about her fundraising strategy. “We’ve also had hundreds and hundreds of small donor donations inside the congressional district,” she added.
Although both women are multimillionaires , according to a St. Paul Pioneer Press analysis of their personal financial disclosures forms, Lawrence's self-funding plays into a narrative Craig supporters are pushing about her being better able to connect with Second District voters.
"She literally grew up in a trailer park with a single mom, and through education, became a successful businesswoman," consultant Travis Lowe said of his client. Craig, who is openly gay, was an executive at St. Jude's Medical until she announced her campaign in April. "Her politics match the DFL activists," Lowe added, pointing to Craig's fiscal conservatism and social progressivism. Lawrence called herself a moderate, pro-growth candidate.
Craig's campaign has been raking in endorsements from local Democratic-Farmer-Labor officials. Mike Obermueller, who twice challenged Kline, has backed Craig, telling CQ Roll Call they first met when she helped out on his last campaign.
The United Steelworkers threw its weight behind Craig the same day Kline announced his retirement.
At the congressional level, Reps. Mark Takano of California and Jared Polis of Colorado, who both serve on the Committee on Education and the Workforce chaired by Kline, endorsed Craig earlier this summer.
Craig's capitalizing on local support, particularly when asked how she differs from Lawrence. "I'm from this district," Craig told CQ Roll Call on Sept. 4.
Where she hesitated to draw any further distinctions — saying, "I’ll let others opine on the differences between us," — Obermueller was happy to elaborate.
"I think the biggest issues I see are the way they connect with individuals here in the district," he said. "People who have been digging in and helping Democrats get elected are flocking toward Angie Craig because she’s been there for a long period of time." The women won't do battle in a traditional primary straight away. In Minnesota, candidates win the DFL's endorsement at a convention, and whoever doesn't secure the nod traditionally drops out.
Craig has said she will abide by the endorsement process. But Lawrence would only say she plans to win the endorsement; she did not rule out the possibility of challenging the endorsement in a primary.
"I’m delighted that they have a primary on their side," Kline said Wednesday.
And because it's now an open race, they're likely to get still more competition. State Rep. Joe Atkins told the St. Paul Pioneer Press Wednesday he'd received encouragement over the Labor Day weekend to launch a bid.
Democrats are banking on the presidential election boosting turnout in their favor, especially because there's no other top-of-the-ticket race on the ballot this cycle.
“ When I was looking at running for this seat, 2016 and turnout was something that I was looking at,” Craig said. But Obama only narrowly won this district in 2012, so a strong GOP nominee at the top of the ticket could also boost a GOP congressional candidate.
"It all depends on the nominee," Kline said of the presidential race. “It’s a swing district, there’s just no doubt about it." In the week since Kline announced his decision, several Republicans have said they are considering it, including former Dakota County District court judge and former first lady Mary Pawlenty and 2014 Senate nominee Mike McFadden. Two-time Kline challenger, tea partier David Gerson, is already running. "We were successful, I guess I would say, in making the announcement a surprise, so there were a number of people who said, 'Oh my gosh, I’d better start thinking about this,'" Kline said.
Kline has spoken to at least one of the candidates, but he said he isn't likely to make an endorsement unless, "there’s a candidate that emerges head and shoulders above the others that it just makes sense."
Without a Republican in the race, The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call moved the race from Safe Republican to Tossup after Kline announced his retirement.
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