Burnsville, Minn. — When Jason Lewis, a former radio talk show host with a history of making controversial comments about women, slavery and same-sex marriage, won the August Republican primary for Minnesota’s 2nd District, Democrats were joyous.
Republicans were muted. Lewis, who’s been dubbed a “mini-Trump” after the GOP presidential nominee, wasn’t the party establishment’s preferred pick to hold onto the seat being vacated by retiring Rep. John Kline.
It looked like Democrats, armed with a strong recruit in healthcare executive Angie Craig, could easily flip this open seat from red to blue. Craig is still favored to win, but this race is closer than either party expected three months ago, which means Democrat have had to keep spending here.
“We’re in a good place that a lot of people didn’t think we’d be in,” Lewis said in an interview at his campaign office last Saturday morning. With a cup of coffee in one hand, he greeted volunteers as young staffers carried in boxes of donuts: fuel for a morning of door-knocking.
One volunteer pulled aside Lewis, whose campaign lags badly in fundraising, to urge him to spruce up his Facebook page. Compared to Craig’s Facebook page, she said, his had too many photos of scenes like Saturday’s: a group of people wearing headsets sitting around a big conference table in a drab office with low fluorescent lighting.
Lewis is voting for Trump, but no other campaign signs hung here: it was just Lewis, a brand unto himself in this area.
“I listened to him almost every day,” volunteer Bill Novacek said. “You get to know a person pretty well listening to them on the radio.” Both candidates started with relatively low identification, but because of his long talk radio career, during which Lewis called himself “America’s Mr. Right,” he started with a built-in support base.
But that radio career is also what’s gotten him into trouble, causing Republicans like Kline to avoid him during the primary and the National Republican Congressional Committee to withhold its congratulations the night he won.
In one monologue on his radio show, Lewis criticized “young, single women” for being single-issue voters when it comes to social issues.
“You’ve got a vast majority of young, single women who couldn’t explain to you what GDP means. You know what they care about? They care about abortion. They care about abortion and gay marriage. They care about ‘The View.’ They are non-thinking,” Lewis said.
Lewis says those comments were taken out of context, but the full tapes of his show no longer exist.
Like Trump’s backers, at least some Lewis supporters distinguish between what he’s said as an entertainer and how they think he’d govern. Was she offended by Lewis’ comments about women? “Not at all. Not one bit,” said Anne Meurer, 48, a volunteer.
Craig has seized on Lewis’ comments, prominently including them in her TV advertising.
“Look, I was paid to be provocative on the radio,” Lewis said. In one of his few TV ads, he accuses “political insiders” of calling him “a monster.” In person, Lewis looks like a suburban dad.
“He helped create the conditions from which the tea party, the Freedom Caucus, perhaps even Donald Trump, has risen,” Craig said in an interview in Eagan last weekend.
The image Craig portrays, as a fiscally moderate and socially progressive businesswoman, is a strong contrast to the out-of-touch, misogynist image she’s tried to pin on Lewis.
Growing up in Arkansas, Craig remembers voting in a mock school election for Walter Mondale for president because he put a woman on his ticket.
“I think that was the first moment in my life that I realized women could be in leadership roles in American government. That was 7th grade. At 18, I came out. In Arkansas,” she said.
If elected, Craig would be the first lesbian mother in Congress. She settled in Minnesota, in part, because the state allowed her to adopt her wife’s oldest son. She doesn’t talk much about her sexuality on the trail, except to describe her family in passing like any other politician would. “My wife and I, we have four sons,” she said in her opening statement at last Sunday’s debate.
Craig has spent $3.3 million over the course of the campaign. (She loaned nearly $1 million of her own money to her campaign.) Lewis has only spent $713,000 and was hoping to get back on broadcast TV this week.
But for all that spending discrepancy, polls have been relatively tight. In a KSTP/SurveyUSA poll conducted in mid-October, Craig led 46 percent to 41 percent. In the presidential race, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had a 44 to 36 percent advantage over Trump.
Craig said her five-point edge matches her latest tracking poll. But a NRCC poll, also from mid-October, gave Lewis a 3-point lead, 36 percent to 33 percent.
“We were expecting it to be harder, but it’s been a margin-of-error race,” said one national GOP operative.
Despite President Barack Obama’s narrow wins here, Republicans have a slight advantage in this suburban district that’s more rural than the nearby 3rd District.
“You won’t find the word ‘Democrat’ on my campaign literature. You won’t find it on my TV ads,” Craig said. “If a voter is voting for Donald Trump because they like that private sector business background, we find them sometimes in our camp.”
But Republicans are going all out to tie Craig to what’s been an electoral weight around Democrats’ necks since 2010: Obama’s health care law.
The Affordable Care Act has crept up lately in all of Minnesota’s congressional races because of rising premiums. Republicans are using Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton’s comments about it becoming unaffordable against Democrats like Craig. The NRCC has now put $2.2 million in this race, and all of its ads mention “Obamacare,” with the latest alleging that Craig would be a “blank check” for Clinton.
That’s where Lewis sees his opening. “There are going to be a whole lot of people that, even if they leave it blank or if they can’t pull the ticket for Trump, are going to say, ‘There’d better be a check there.’ And I’m going to be the check,” he said.