ANALYSIS — Marine veteran Tyler Kistner is one of the few Republican challengers to outraise a Democratic incumbent in the second quarter of the year. But his difficult path to election in the Twin Cities suburbs in Minnesota is a microcosm of the House GOP’s struggle nationwide as President Donald Trump labors to repeat his 2016 performance.
On paper, Minnesota’s 2nd District should be one of Republicans’ top takeover opportunities anywhere in the country. In the GOP’s quest for a net gain of 17 seats, Republican politicians and strategists cite the 30 districts Trump carried in 2016 that are currently represented by a Democrat as empirical proof of the party’s legitimate chance of taking back the majority.
And after losing 41 seats and their House majority in 2018, most Republicans believed Trump would be an asset in 2020 by turning out his supporters who didn’t vote in the midterms, thus boosting down-ballot candidates. Yet with his slumping job approval rating due to his response to the coronavirus and race relations, the president has become a liability in many districts, and he’s on pace to win just a fraction of those 30 seats he won four years ago.
As a 32-year-old military veteran with a credible outsider message and a proven ability to raise money, Kistner is the type of challenger Republicans need to run in competitive districts. Yet Kistner could become a casualty of a tough district and a difficult cycle for his party.
The 2nd District, which includes the southern Twin Cities suburbs and more rural areas to the southeast, has a reputation for being a swing seat. President Barack Obama carried it narrowly in 2012, while Trump won it narrowly four years later. Control of the House seat flipped from Republicans to Democrats in 2018 when Democrat Angie Craig was elected.
A recent poll released exclusively to CQ Roll Call points to another competitive race as it showed Craig leading Kistner 45 percent to 36 percent. The survey of 401 likely voters via live callers was conducted July 6-8 by Harper Polling for the Kistner campaign.
Even in the face of an initial 9-point deficit, Kistner allies were encouraged by the results.
The generic ballot was tied at 44 percent each for a Republican and Democratic candidate. Craig had high name recognition but was not overwhelmingly popular with a 44 percent favorable and 35 percent unfavorable rating. Kistner was largely unknown, with a 10 percent favorable and 7 percent unfavorable rating, but Republicans believe his standing will only improve as he flexes his financial muscle.
In addition, Legal Marijuana Now candidate Adam Weeks received 6 percent in the initial ballot, giving Republicans positive flashbacks to 2016. That’s when Republican radio talk show host Jason Lewis — who is now running for Senate — kept the open 2nd District seat in GOP hands by defeating Craig 47 percent to 45 percent, while liberal third-party candidate Paula Overby garnered 7.8 percent. Two years later, Craig defeated Lewis 53 percent to 47 percent without any major third-party candidates.
The most glaring number missing from the polling memo was the presidential ballot. It’s fair to assume if it was good for Kistner and Trump, it would have been mentioned.
Four years ago, Trump carried the 2nd 46.5 percent to 45.3 percent while losing statewide by about 1.5 points. A recent Fox News poll showed Democrat Joe Biden leading Trump statewide 51 percent to 38 percent, which means the president is likely trailing significantly in the 2nd District. That would be a significant challenge for Kistner to overcome. Most party strategists believe stellar candidates can outperform the top of the ticket by a handful of points, but not overcome double-digit deficits.
In an interview Monday, Kistner was confident in his profile as a veteran and a conservative millennial and that his strong fundraising will help him get known to 2nd District voters.
Kistner had raised $904,000 for his campaign through June 30, including $747,000 in the second quarter, which was slightly more than the $731,000 Craig brought in between April and June. Kistner is one of 11 GOP challengers who outraised a Democratic incumbent in the second quarter.
That fundraising, however, has come at a cost. Kistner spent nearly $400,000 through the second quarter and finished June with $512,000 in the bank. Craig had $2.5 million and will have support from outside groups, if necessary. House Majority PAC, the go-to Democratic outside group for House races, has reserved $6 million in TV ad time in the Minneapolis-St. Paul media market for the fall. That may not be all for the 2nd District, but it’s already on the books.
The 2nd is also a focus for Republicans, considering both the Trump presidential campaign and Lewis’ Senate campaign have headquarters in the district. And Republicans are hoping to benefit from the president’s focus on law and order, given that the northern part of the district is just miles from some of the most violent areas of the protests in response to the killing of George Floyd at the end May.
Republicans are encouraged by the polling for Kistner’s campaign, which showed that 74 percent of district voters are concerned about defunding the police and safety. But that sentiment has yet to become a liability for Craig or Biden.
This is the type of district Republicans need to win, and Kistner is the type of candidate they need to run to get back to the majority. But the current realities of the district and the political environment are a great example of why that is unlikely to happen in 2020. At least in the age of Trump, the 2nd looks more like a swung district than a swing district.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.