SHAKOPEE, Minn. — Angie Craig was sipping a beer at a table in the local brew hall when multiple people came up behind her to ask if she was who they thought she was.
The experience marked two things that the Democrat says are different about her rematch in Minnesota’s 2nd District with Republican Rep. Jason Lewis, who narrowly defeated her in 2016.
For starters, she’s better known this time around. And second, she’s running a more authentic campaign. She’s not afraid to stop for a beer between a parade and a local business tour on a Saturday afternoon.
That’s not the only thing that’s different from two years ago. The national environment is much more favorable to Democrats — something Craig has noticed by the reception she gets even in Republican areas of the district like this one. And unlike in 2016, when a third-party candidate took nearly 8 percent of the vote, this year’s race features just Craig and Lewis.
The question for Craig is whether all of those factors will be enough to result in a different outcome in a district that’s used to backing Republicans at the congressional level. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilts Democratic.
Watch: As Early Voting Begins, A Look at Minnesota’s Uber-Competitive House Races
A 2016 surprise
After longtime Republican Rep. John Kline decided not to run for re-election in 2016, Democrats thought they had a good shot at flipping this seat, which had backed former President Barack Obama narrowly in 2008 and even more narrowly in 2012. Heading into Election Day, polling showed Craig with a decent lead over Lewis.
But like Hillary Clinton, she ended up narrowly losing by less than 2 points. New voters showed up at the polls to back Trump, and some Democratic voters stayed home.
Craig knew she was running in a Republican district — “You won’t find the word ‘Democrat’ on my campaign literature,” she told Roll Call in late 2016. But she was easily tied to Clinton, in part, because she ran a similarly buttoned-up campaign.
This year, she’s using a different polling firm, Normington Petts, and she switched out her media team. Impressed with their track record in Trump districts, she recruited Ralston Lapp to do her ads.
Her 2016 ads showed her in a suit in a boardroom. In her introductory video this cycle, she’s wearing a sweatshirt and says the word “hell.” Her TV ads show her at the kitchen table and on farms, where she’s wearing a jean jacket. She talks about being raised by a single mother who struggled to afford health care, working two jobs to put herself through college and her son’s decision to pursue technical training rather than a four-year college degree. Her wife Cheryl is frequently mentioned and on screen. (If elected, she’d be the first lesbian mother in Congress — a fact she didn’t bring up much in 2016.)
“People need to know I had to work damn hard to achieve the success and experience that I got. I didn’t show up in a business suit one day,” Craig said in an interview at the New Prague parade late last month.
Many of her 2016 ads were about controversial comments about women and slavery Lewis made as a radio talk show host. She’s not going there this year, despite national media outlets resurfacing more of his remarks this summer.
“I’m more offended by his votes than by his words” is all Craig will say on the subject.
Lewis has noticed the difference from his opponent.
“It’s much more boilerplate, much more controlled,” he said, noting that Craig’s message is overwhelmingly positive and isn’t about Trump.
Looking at the math alone, it’s probable that Craig would have won in 2016 had the third-party candidate not taken such a large share of the vote. But just as Craig isn’t taking those voters for granted this year, Lewis isn’t convinced all those voters will break against him.
There may be a hard ceiling for Democratic candidates in a congressional district that still has a strong agricultural base and has voted for Republicans for the House since 2002.
When Lewis ran in 2016, he wasn’t the favorite of the establishment GOP. He didn’t even receive Kline’s backing in the primary. But he believes some of those third-party voters — like the moderates who he says thought, “This fire-breathing talk radio host, I’m not going to vote for him” — may now be on his side.
Lewis’ strength, he argued in an interview outside a Friday night football game at Lakeville South High School, has been keeping his head down and getting things done in Congress. “People said, ‘Well, I may not be crazy about Jason, but that’s pretty much what he said he was going to do,’” he said of his votes.
Even before Craig entered the race last year, Democrats started attacking Lewis on his vote for the Republican health care bill. But he hasn’t heard much pushback on that. “I really thought we’d get a lot more,” he admitted, but noted that could be because Minnesota’s own health insurance marketplace remains unpopular.
Lewis sees the GOP tax plan as a “good thing to run on” and believes taking a strong stand on local issues such as building the Enbridge Pipeline will go over well in the district.
The Trump factor
Marching in the New Prague parade, Craig made a point of running up to spectators holding Lewis or Trump signs to shake their hands.
“When I go up to these folks, what I say is, you may not like me now, but I’m going to work to represent you,” she said.
Unlike Minnesota’s 3rd District, which Democrats are also trying to flip, this district voted for Trump. Lewis maintains that the president is still popular here, even if he won by just over 1 point.
“I am not making the point of saying I’m all with Trump, but I’m not going to throw him under the bus. And I think that’s wise in this district,” the congressman said.
Craig said she’s heard the check-and-balance argument: “A few voters have said to me, ‘After the last election, Angie, we all thought Hillary Clinton was going to be president. And we wanted a check and balance and we voted Lewis.’”
But mostly, Craig doesn’t talk about Trump because people don’t talk to her about him — except Republican women.
She said she’s heard from female supporters who admit they didn’t vote for her the first time.
“I’ve got one woman who volunteers on our campaign — and I’m not advocating for this — but she tells her husband she’s at book club,” Craig said.“I don’t know what’s going to happen when he figures out that book club doesn’t meet more than once a month normally.”