COON RAPIDS, Minn. — In his final push for down-ballot Republicans, Speaker Paul D. Ryan is swinging through Minnesota’s 3rd District Wednesday.
The fact that he’s stopping in this well-educated, suburban district, where GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen is running for a fifth term, is a sign that Democrats have succeeded in using Donald Trump to expand the House battlefield.
The problem for Democrats, though, is that Paulsen has a long history of winning ticket-splitters. He’s voted with his party 93 percent of the time he’s been in Congress, but he’s glided to re-election even when President Barack Obama has carried his district.
“In this district, they’ll vote for the person not the party,” Paulsen said last week when knocking on doors in a leafy Twin Cities suburb.
Enter Trump. The Democrats’ strategy here, as it is around the country, is to convince voters that Paulsen is indistinguishable from the GOP presidential nominee.
The argument: Even if Paulsen, a mild-mannered math major, doesn’t sound or act like Trump, he thinks like him based on the votes he’s taken.
The Trump factor
This race began with Trump. Democrats had been trying to recruit Terri Bonoff, a pro-business state senator, to run for this seat for six years. (Bonoff ran for the seat in 2008 but dropped out after failing to win the Democratic-Farmer-Labor endorsement.)
“But this time, they asked a little differently. I mean, this was like, strong recruitment,” Bonoff said in an interview in Minnetonka last week.
Seeing Trump at the top of the GOP ticket and Clinton leading by double digits, Bonoff finally gave the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee the answer they wanted: Yes, she would take on Paulsen.
In her first ad, released in September, Bonoff says she’s running for Congress because “we need to step up and stand up to Donald Trump.”
The implicit message was that her opponent wouldn’t.
As Trump grew more toxic, Bonoff and the Democrats linked Paulsen to the GOP nominee more explicitly — even after he condemned Trump and said he would not be voting for him. (He’s likely to write in Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.)
In particular, Bonoff points to Paulsen’s opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage to make the case that he’s out of touch with his district, which is home to many big corporations who want to recruit top talent.
From Bonoff’s perspective, hers is an education campaign.
“There’s kind of that swath in the middle that doesn’t affiliate. I believe that those people, if they know where I stand and where he stands, they’re going to come my way,” she said.
She pointed to the late infusion of outside spending as evidence that the race is “neck and neck.” The National Republican Congressional Committee went up with a $1.1 million ad buy last week, its first in the district. House Majority PAC, which backs Democratic House candidates and had previously cut their reservations here, is back on the air with a closing ad tying Paulsen to Trump.
Polling conducted for the HMP in mid-October gave Paulsen a 45 percent to 42 percent edge over Bonoff, with 13 percent of likely voters undecided. Paulsen led 49 percent to 38 percent in a KSTP/SurveyUSA poll conducted around the same time.
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A turnout game
“I don’t take stock in the polls,” Paulsen said. His campaign hasn’t released any internal numbers. “I just know that it feels good on the ground.”
Paulsen’s roommates in Washington call him the gopher because he crashes in the basement of a house he shares with GOP Reps. Kevin Brady of Texas, John Shimkus of Illinois, and Steve Scalise of Louisiana. But above ground and back in his district, this Ways and Means Committee member runs between houses. He moves so fast his staff usually takes a separate route to canvass because they can’t keep up with him.
Wearing his orange campaign fleece, Paulsen blended in with his constituents’ Halloween decorations and the falling foliage. He inherited his campaign colors from his predecessor, former Rep. Jim Ramstad.
“Hi, I’m Erik Paulsen, I’m running for re-election again,” he told one of the rare voters who opened the door. He said it almost apologetically for having disturbed her on a Saturday afternoon.
In Paulsen’s closing ad, released Tuesday, he says he’ll work with the next president “no matter” who it is. But he knows Trump is going to tank here.
“This was a Jesse Ventura state,” he said, referring to the former professional wrestler who won the governorship in 1998. “But I think Minnesota experienced that sort of loud brash type of leadership and they don’t like that.”
Even Bonoff concedes Paulsen’s nothing like that. “He’s really quiet,” she said. “Looks like kinda who you’d go out to dinner with.” But disposition isn’t her argument.
Paulsen wouldn’t take the bait when pressed about his stance on the social issues that Bonoff says put him at odds with his district.
“I don’t focus on divisive issues,” he said. “The bottom line is I focus on issues that are really important, that really matter, especially pocketbook issues.”
Asked specifically about same-sex marriage, he skirted the topic.
“That issue is kind of settled,” he said, referring to Minnesota’s 2012 rejection of a constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage.
Paulsen whipped out his smartphone, which, like him, was encased in orange, to look at his map of targeted homes. At this point, he was only knocking on known Paulsen or Republican supporters’ doors.
Without a Senate or gubernatorial race on the ballot, and with two unpopular presidential nominees, Paulsen needs his supporters to turn out.
“We just gotta remind people to vote,” he said. “It matters, even if they’re discouraged with the food fight at the top of the ticket.”