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Minnesota races a snapshot of 2020 in miniature

Incumbents are on edge in two districts, while a third is embroiled in a legal battle over when to vote

Minnesota’s congressional races are so very 2020. 

One district features legal challenges stemming from a candidate’s death. In another race, ethics issues offer an example of how Democrats have expanded their House map into traditionally red turf. And in a rural stretch that heavily favors President Donald Trump, a longtime Democratic-Farmer-Labor incumbent and committee chairman faces a serious threat to his seat. 

Sen. Tina Smith, the incumbent Democrat, isn’t seen as vulnerable to a challenge from former Republican Rep. Jason Lewis. Handicappers also do not give Trump much of a shot at winning the state, which he lost in 2016 by the slimmest of margins.

But the state’s House races and its political dynamics are something of a microcosm of 2020. Health care, the COVID-19 pandemic and economic turmoil have, like elsewhere, taken center stage. Some of the GOP campaigns have taken a cue from Trump’s “law and order” messaging, while Democrats have focused on racial inequality. It is, after all, the state where George Floyd’s death, at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in late May, prompted nationwide protests. 

“Law and order must be restored, period,” Michelle Fischbach, the Republican challenging Rep. Collin C. Peterson in Minnesota’s 7th District, wrote on Facebook this summer amid demonstrations that at times included arson and assault. She shared a video of a police officer who was knocked out. “There can be no equivocation on this.”

Trump country

Peterson, a relatively conservative Democrat who serves as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, survived by 5 points in 2016 while Trump carried his rural eastern Minnesota district by more than 30 points. He had an even narrower win two years later against the same underfunded opponent. This cycle, he faces a better-funded, stronger challenger in Fischbach, earning him a spot on CQ Roll Call’s list of the 10 most vulnerable House members

“He’s rarely faced a quality challenger, and now he does,” said Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota who follows congressional campaigns. 

Fischbach, a former Minnesota lieutenant governor and state senator, raised more than $1 million in this year’s third quarter, edging Peterson’s haul of just under $1 million. Outside money has poured into the race, too. House Majority PAC, a group aligned with House Democratic leadership, has invested millions attacking Fischbach.

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“Michelle has now raised more than the previous four Republican challengers combined,” Fischbach campaign manager David FitzSimmons said.  

Peterson, who is going for a 16th term in the House, voted against impeaching the president last year and opposes abortion rights. But, FitzSimmons said, that may not be enough for district voters this cycle.

“He makes a lot of noise about the few times that he goes a different direction, but more than 80 percent of the time, he’s with Nancy Pelosi,” he said.

Peterson voted with his party on measures that divided Democrats and Republicans about 78 percent of time during the current Congress, according to CQ Roll Call’s VoteWatch. No one in the Democratic Caucus scored lower.

Pearson, of the University of Minnesota, noted that half of the state’s House seats switched parties in 2018 — in many cases bringing the districts’ representation more in line with its presidential leanings. For example, Democrat Dean Phillips ousted GOP incumbent Erik Paulsen in the 3rd District in suburban Minneapolis, while Republican Pete Stauber won the Iron Range 8th District to succeed DFL Rep. Rick Nolan. 

Tied up in court

DFL Rep. Angie Craig, who unseated Lewis in the state’s 2nd District, south of the Twin Cities, is not particularly vulnerable. The race there has been thrown into chaos, however, by the death of a third-party candidate.

“If the law-and-order message were really resonating, then Angie Craig would be one of the first Democrats to fall, since she’s adjacent to some of the violence in Minneapolis. But she’s not on the verge of losing,” CQ Roll Call elections analyst Nathan L. Gonzales said. “Republicans found a good candidate, but he got in late and will have a tough time running far enough ahead of Trump.”

That candidate is Marine veteran Tyler Kistner, and his campaign and Craig’s are embroiled in a legal dispute over state officials trying to postpone their election until February after the death of Adam Weeks, the Legal Marijuana Now Party candidate. A judge ruled in Craig’s favor that the election had to be Nov. 3, but Kistner’s campaign has appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit.  

Kistner campaign spokesman Billy Grant said the Republican challenger called off ads and canceled events after the state’s initial postponement. Craig has argued that leaving the congressional seat vacant for the early weeks of the 117th Congress puts the district at a disadvantage. The appellate court is likely to rule this week.

“It happened at the most critical time,” Grant said. “We had to change our whole strategy.” 

Kistner raised $1.4 million in the third quarter ending Sept. 30 to Craig’s $1.5 million. Craig had $2.2 million on hand to Kistner’s $550,000. Inside Elections rates the race Solid Democratic

Democratic shift

The state’s 1st District, where Republican Jim Hagedorn is seeking a second term, is a largely rural stretch from the plains bordering South Dakota to the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. A competitive race there offers a good example of how much Democrats have expanded their map into Trump country, as the district backed the president by nearly 15 points in 2016.

It’s also a rematch of the 2018 contest, like numerous House races around the country, including several involving Republicans who managed to survive the blue wave. And it illustrates the broader trend of Democrats’ political money advantage.

DFL nominee Dan Feehan, an Army veteran and Obama-era Pentagon official, outraised Hagedorn substantially in this year’s third quarter, hauling in $1.9 million to the incumbent’s $527,000. Hagedorn, who has been dogged by ethics scandals, reported having just under $300,000 in his campaign account as of Sept. 30, while Feehan had $1.5 million heading into the crucial final weeks of the campaign. 

On Friday, Inside Elections moved the race rating in Feehan’s favor to Toss-up.

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