PLYMOUTH, Minn. — Erik Paulsen has been a survivor.
When Hillary Clinton carried Minnesota’s 3rd District last cycle by 9 points, the Republican congressman won re-election by 14 points.
So how is it that the five-term lawmaker finds himself in trouble this year against a well-funded, moderate Democrat?
The short answer: President Donald Trump.
Two years ago, the bombastic New York real estate mogul was just a candidate who many people in this well-educated, suburban Twin Cities district thought was going to lose. Now, he’s the president of the United States. For Paulsen, who’s never faced re-election with a Republican in the White House before, that could be enough to turn off his district’s infamous ticket-splitting voters.
Awaiting him in November is Democratic businessman Dean Phillips, a first-time candidate who has used Trump’s election as fuel for his campaign, but doesn’t actually talk much about the president. Instead, Phillips is taking the fight straight to Paulsen, accusing him of being an inaccessible representative caught up in a corrupt political system.
A New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll conducted earlier this month gave Phillips a 9-point edge. Neither side has released polling, but Democrats are optimistic the race is moving in their direction. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilts Republican.
Watch: Republican Erik Paulsen May Not Survive Atop Ballot Two Times in a Row
Energy on the ground
Paulsen’s volunteers wear orange. Phillips’ wear blue.
They congregated on opposite sides of a shady street here last weekend, ready to get this parade started.
Phillips’s crowd, huddled around his 1960 International Harvester dubbed “Government Repair Truck,” dwarfed Paulsen’s, which was joined by a pig with a sign about cutting pork. Phillips has put together a strong ground game in the well-educated district, telling voters that “everyone’s invited,” both literally to his events (like a picnic the previous weekend that attracted 1,000 people) and figuratively into his campaign.
His truck has become a mascot of sorts, but the campaign also has a pontoon, an ice fishing shack and a brick-and-mortar headquarters it’s calling the “conversation cottage.” By hosting more than 220 public events, Phillips is trying to show that he’s accessible — and that the congressman, whom Phillips’ campaign compared to “Bigfoot” in a recent digital video and TV ad airing Thursday, is not.
Phillips is the rare House candidate this year not accepting any PAC money, whether from corporations, labor unions or other politicians. Republicans scoff at that commitment, pointing out that as the heir to a vodka fortune who once owned Talenti Gelato, he has plenty of his own resources. So far, he has contributed $30,000 to his campaign but isn’t ruling out investing more of his own money.
Phillips attacks Paulsen for voting for the Republican health care plan in his latest ad, but he’s also trying to carve out a moderate profile. He’s not in favor of repealing the GOP tax overhaul, cautions Democrats against clamoring for Trump’s impeachment and calls for new leadership in the party.
Outside Republican groups are spending millions attacking Phillips’ character — accusing him of being a shady businessman and a hypocrite when it comes to offering health care to employees at his coffee shop. Paulsen is now running a negative attack ad with the same message. (Phillips does offer health care to his full-time employees.)
But Phillips is now using those attacks to underscore his get-money-out-of-politics message, which he admitted wasn’t always popular here.
“I was advised against making that the hallmark of this campaign,” he said in an interview after an early vote rally last week.
That changed, Phillips said, after his first debate with Paulsen in August. After walking offstage, he looked at his phone and found a series of news alerts, followed by messages of support.
“In that hour and 15 minutes, Paul Manafort had been convicted, Michael Cohen had pleaded guilty and Duncan Hunter had been charged with campaign finance fraud,” he recalled.
This isn’t 2016
Democrats thought Trump’s unpopularity would be enough to unseat Paulsen two years ago.
The national party had tried to recruit his 2016 challenger for six years, and finally with the prospect of a Trump White House, state Sen. Terri Bonoff agreed to run.
She was the first to admit that Paulsen — a mild-mannered math major and dad to four girls — was nothing like Trump. But she argued the congressman would vote like him, and outside groups tried to tie Paulsen to Trump, even after he said he wouldn’t vote for the nominee. (He said he wrote in Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.)
That Democratic strategy failed.
But after Trump’s victory, the affluent 3rd District became another target for national Democrats looking to tap into frustration with the president.
Paulsen knows his constituents want him to stand up to Trump and acknowledges the “anxiety” many feel about his presidency. It’s why his first ad is about how he’ll protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a wilderness region within the Superior National Forest that’s hours away from his district. He ends the spot by promising to stand up to Trump and his own party.
Paulsen has voted with his fellow Republicans 89 percent of the time and with Trump 100 percent of the time so far this Congress, according to CQ’s Vote Watch. On the trail, he touts his break with leadership on immigration (he signed the discharge petition earlier this year to force a floor vote on immigration bills), as well as a GovTrack study that found he was No. 3 in Congress for getting bipartisan co-sponsors on his bills.
“We’ve had tough races nearly every cycle; this one will be the exact same,” Paulsen said in an interview at the Plymouth parade, running from one side of the street to the other as his brother held up an orange sign above his head identifying him as “Erik.”
Paulsen disputes the notion that he’s not visible, pointing to three in-person town halls he’s held this summer as well as 23 tele-town halls in the past two years. (He ignored a parade spectator who shouted, “We’d like to see you and not have to have a sign to find you.”)
The congressman knocks doors the same way he shakes hands in a parade — by sprinting in between contact points. And this year, he said, the campaign is targeting its door-knocking more to swing voters.
“People will ask, ‘Hey, I’ve got some concerns about the Republican Party. How are you different?’” Paulsen said.
It’s a question he welcomes.
“Minnesotans are ticket-splitters,” he said. “It’s always been the person not the party.”
November will tell if Paulsen is still their person.