Dem hopes for House majority run through Minnesota suburbs

Dem hopes for House majority run through Minnesota suburbs
© Greg Nash

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Democrats seeking to knock off Republican incumbents in two critical districts in the Twin City suburbs have put a dying art at the center of their campaigns: The town hall meeting. 

Dean Phillips, the Democrat challenging Rep. Erik PaulsenErik Philip PaulsenMinnesota New Members 2019 Defeated Republicans mocked by Trump fire back at president On The Money: Trump says he won't give up tax returns | Likely Dem chair vows to subpoena | Stocks rally on Dem House takeover | Tough midterm for many GOP tax writers MORE, and Angie Craig, who is seeking to unseat Rep. Jason LewisJason Mark LewisMLB donated to GOP lawmaker who made controversial comments about women, minorities Minnesota New Members 2019 Overnight Health Care — Presented by The Partnership for Safe Medicines — Medicaid expansion gets extra boost from governors' races | Utah's expansion to begin April 1 | GOP lawmaker blames McCain for Dems winning House MORE, have pledged to hold regular town hall meetings if they are elected. 

Both say Paulsen and Lewis have largely avoided constituents in public settings during heated debates over repealing the Affordable Care Act and the Republican tax cut bill. If we win, say Phillips and Craig, constituents will have a chance to unload on us if they desire.

Whether voters in Minnesota can be moved to back the two Democratic challengers over the GOP incumbents on the promise of more town hall meetings is unclear. 

But the town hall debate is reflective of a larger argument the two Democrats are making that has been embraced by other candidates across the country. They want to signal a return to civility and dialogue that has been lost in the Trump era.

“People deserve to have a representative who listens, even to folks who may not agree with them,” Craig said. “I’m not running to represent Democrats or Republicans, I’m running to represent Minnesotans.”

Winning the two seats is critical to Democratic hopes of retaking the House majority. Democrats need to gain 23 seats to put the GOP back into the minority. 

Paulsen represents a district that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders, Warren meet ahead of potential 2020 bids Hillicon Valley — Presented by AT&T — New momentum for privacy legislation | YouTube purges spam videos | Apple plans B Austin campus | Iranian hackers targeted Treasury officials | FEC to let lawmakers use campaign funds for cyber Comey’s remarks about Trump dossier are not credible, says former FBI official MORE won by nine points in the 2016 presidential race, while President TrumpDonald John TrumpProsecutors investigating Trump inaugural fund, pro-Trump super PAC for possible illegal foreign donations: NY Times George Conway: Why take Trump's word over prosecutors' if he 'lies about virtually everything' Federal judge says lawsuit over Trump travel ban waivers will proceed MORE won Lewis’s district by a single percentage point. 

“The respective challengers to Lewis and Paulsen are each well-funded and running in suburban districts which are not classic ‘Trump country’ seats,” said Eric Ostermeier, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. “The GOP base that is dialed into the president’s message is not as strong here as in Greater Minnesota.”

About a third of the entire House Republican Conference represents a suburban district, and the vast majority of the most competitive seats this year are in those suburban belts, where President Trump underperformed Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTrump’s own undocumented help highlights plight of many immigrants Trump attorney general pick a prolific donor to GOP candidates, groups: report O’Rourke is fireball, but not all Dems are sold MORE in 2016 and where his approval rating has suffered.

In a sign of how critical the two Minnesota seats are to both parties, outside groups have spent more money on House race advertising in the Minneapolis-St. Paul media market, more than $30 million, than in any other media market in the country outside of Los Angeles.

Paulsen has fended off well-funded Democratic challengers before; he won re-election in 2016 by a nearly 14-point margin. Lewis won office in 2016, over Craig, by a margin of less than two percentage points.

Two recent polls from Siena College and SurveyUSA have showed Phillips leading Paulsen. The same two pollsters each found Craig leading Lewis.

Democrats and Republicans alike have been the targets of loud protests at town hall meetings in recent years. Democrats came under fire in 2009 and 2010, during debates over the Affordable Care Act. Many Republicans have opted against holding in-person town hall meetings since Trump took office, fearful of being taped responding to angry constituents of their own.

Craig has pledged to hold a public forum once a month if she is elected; Phillips has promised quarterly meetings at a minimum.

Craig said the debate over the Republican replacement for ObamaCare struck a cord with her voters, who were unable to register their opinions with Lewis directly.

“Voters couldn’t get through to his office. They couldn’t get through to him to tell him how gutting pre-existing protections in this country was going to effect their lives,” Craig said in an interview. “People just wanted to be heard. They wanted him to listen to the impact that bill would have on their lives.”

Becky Alery, Lewis’s campaign manager, pointed to town hall meetings Lewis has held in the past, which she said required “extra security precautions due to left-wing threats.”

“He’s spent the past two years getting crucial feedback and meeting with constituents on a daily basis,” Alery said in an email. “Angie Craig, on the other hand, continues to amass record amounts of money from nearly every special interest possible so she can hide behind attack ads that refuse to tell voters where she stands on issues important to the district she claims she wants to represent.”

Some incumbents, like Paulsen, have opted to hold telephone town halls, much more controlled forums in which members can avoid potentially flammable situations.

Paulsen has held 23 town halls since the 115th Congress began, including about 70,000 constituents, spokesman John Elizandro said. He pointed to three in-person town halls this summer. 

“Being accessible as a member of Congress and being a listener is key and important to being effective, and I’ve got a strong reputation of that,” Paulsen said in a debate last week broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio. He said some of his in-person town hall meetings “were very uncivil, with outbursts and boos and screaming.”

But Phillips said those events aren’t sufficient.

“It’s a notion of accessibility, and the duty of service, which in my estimation means showing up,” Phillips told The Hill in an interview. “Perpetual incumbency, [Paulsen] knows, it favors those who hide from the public but spend millions on advertising, crafting an image that people have trouble discerning the truth from.”

On Monday, Phillips addressed a group of senior citizens at an upscale retirement community here. Dick Durre, who introduced the first-time Democratic candidate, said he had reached out to Paulsen’s office seven times, with no response.

“I still have not heard from Erik Paulsen,” Durre told the crowd. “We want to hear from him too, but I have never been able to get in touch with him.”

About 45 minutes south and east, in exurban Northfield, city council member Suzie Nakasian said she has not seen her congressman, Rep. Jason Lewis (R), during his two years in office. Though she meets regularly with Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharSenate Dems urge Trump to continue nuclear arms control negotiations after treaty suspension Senate approves bill reforming Congress's sexual harassment policy The Year Ahead: Push for privacy bill gains new momentum MORE (D) and other members of the Minnesota delegation during annual visits to Washington, she has yet to meet Lewis.

“It’s hard to stay interested in representatives who don’t show signs of representing you,” said Nakasian, a former aide to a Republican senator in Washington and now a member of a national group of Democratic municipal elected officials.