Minnesota 3: Toss-Up

by Nathan L. Gonzales June 13, 2008 · 3:00 PM EDT

If you’re looking for a truly toss-up race in a swing district, look no further than Minnesota’s 3rd District.

The suburban Minneapolis district is precisely the type of territory and district that Democrats have experienced recent electoral success. And moderate Cong. Jim Ramstad’s (R) retirement left this seat prime for the picking.

But even in this environment, the race is not a shoo-in for the Democrats. Their nominee, Iraq War veteran Ashwin Madia is articulate and energetic, but also young and unknown.

The Republicans have Erik Paulsen, a former state House majority leader who votes like a conservative but doesn’t breathe fire or focus on social issues. So voters will have to replace a centrist like Ramstad with a candidate on either side of his ideology.

The 3rd District race may sit in the shadow of the U.S. Senate race between Sen. Norm Coleman (R) and comedian Al Franken (DFL) for most of the fall, but may actually be a better bellwether as to how bad Election Night really is for the Republicans.

The Lay of the Land
The 3rd District sits west of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in the Hennepin County suburbs. It’s the wealthiest (with a median income of $63,816) and most educated (40% have a college degree) in the state, and is regarded as a fiscally conservative, socially moderate area.

Bloomington (south of Minneapolis) is the largest city in district (population 85,172) and home to the 4.2 million square foot Mall of America, the largest mall in the country.

The district moves west to include Eden Prairie (54,901) and north to Minnetonka (51,301), Plymouth (65,894), Brooklyn Park (67,388), where Jesse Ventura was elected mayor before governor, and part of Coon Rapids (58,396) in the small part of Anoka County that is in the district.

The district is 89% white, 4% black, 4% Asian, and 2% Hispanic. Voters do not register by party in the state.

President Bush won the 3rd District narrowly, 51%-48%, in 2004, even though he lost statewide by a similar margin.

Last cycle, Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) received 53% in the district, but only squeaked by statewide with 47%.

Republicans point out that Jeff Johnson (R) won the district in his losing bid for state attorney general in which he got 41% statewide. At the same time, Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar took 56% in the district in her successful U.S. Senate bid.

Jim Ramstad, a state senator from Minnetonka, was first elected to Congress in 1990 when Republican Cong. Bill Frenzel retired. Ramstad, a moderate on abortion, was validated by the support of successful conservatives Rudy Boschwitz and Vin Weber. Ramstad won his first race with 67% and never fell below 64% in eight subsequent reelections, making the swing district look less competitive than it really was.

Regarded as a centrist, from 2002 to 2006, Ramstad voted with President Bush an average of 74% of the time and the Republican Party 81% of the time. He was one of only three Republicans to vote for all six initial Democratic bills in this Congress, and was against the President’s surge strategy in Iraq.

Ramstad was also one of ten Republicans to earn the Sierra Club endorsement in 2006.

Immediately after he announced his retirement in September, a dozen serious candidates jumped into the race. But candidates dropped out week by week until Paulsen and state Sen. Terri Bonoff (DFL) were left. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Madia jumped in.

The DFLer: Madia
Ashwin Madia, 30, was born in Boston, the son of Indian immigrants that eventually settled in Plymouth. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1999, where he was student body president, and New York University Law School in 2002.

After law school, he joined the Marine Corps as a JAG officer and served as a prosecutor, defense counsel, and legal advisor in Okinawa, Japan, before serving in Iraq (2005-2006). He left active duty on July 4, 2006 as a Captain.

Back in Minnesota, Madia went to work at the Minneapolis law firm of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, LLP, where former U.S. Senate candidate Mike Ciresi and state Rep. Steve Simon (D), who considered running in this 3rd District race, also work.

Bonoff was widely regarded as the frontrunner in the Democratic race, but she took the DFL endorsement for granted. She focused more on raising money for the general election (which she did well) than on securing delegates.

Meanwhile, Madia ran an effective grassroots campaign targeted at the 150 or so delegates who would make the endorsement and outworked his Democratic opponent. She was considered the more moderate candidate, but was more liberal than Madia on the Iraq War.

Just days before the convention, it became apparent that Bonoff was in trouble. “Suddenly she had all this money and no place to go,” according to a state observer. After Madia received enough delegates on the eighth ballot, Bonoff dropped out so it would be unanimous and there would be no primary.

Now Madia is ramping up his effort and transitioning to the general election after running a very grassroots campaign. His team includes Jimmy Segal of A-Political for media and Jeffrey Plaut of Global Strategy Group for polling.

The Republican: Paulsen
Erik Paulsen, 43, was born in Bakersfield, California but his family relocated to Minnesota. Paulsen graduated St. Olaf College (a Lutheran school in Northfield) with his degree in math in 1987.

After working a summer at Yellowstone National Park, Paulsen went to work as an analyst for the Cable Value Network. After two and a half years, he interned for Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R) in his St. Paul office. Paulsen then worked as a field rep on the senator’s unsuccessful 1990 reelection.

After the race, Paulsen moved to D.C. and volunteered for both Weber and Ramstad before Ramstad offered him a job on the Small Business Committee. He did that for two years before 1992 when he became the congressman’s state director and moved back to Minnesota.

In 1994, Paulsen ran successfully for an open state House seat. He was always reelected easily and eventually took over Pawlenty’s position as majority leader in 2002. He held that post for four years until last cycle when Republicans lost control of the state House and Paulsen lost his bid for minority leader of a depleted caucus.

Along with serving in the Legislature, Paulsen has also had a small computer business, an investment company, and has worked as a business analyst for Target for the last four years.

Ramstad announced his retirement and a number of candidates jumped in. But the list slowly dwindled until Paulsen stood alone as the presumptive GOP nominee.

The Republican’s campaign team includes Brian Tringali of the Tarrance Group for polling and Pat McCarthy of Dawson McCarthy McElwain for media. McCarthy’s parents live in Eden Prairie.

Paulsen describes himself as more conservative than Ramstad, but he doesn’t appear to be an ideologue. He’s pro-life, but doesn’t emphasize cultural issues the way some Republicans do. He’s a math guy who would rather talk economics.

How It Plays Out
The political environment leans Democratic, but the 3rd District still has a slight Republican tilt to it. According to one state observer, “the one who wins is the one who most resembles Ramstad.” But therein lies the handicapping difficulty, Paulsen and Madia are to the right and left of the out-going congressman.

Of course, Democrats will try and portray Paulsen as a “status quo politician” who is too conservative for the district. They’ll attack him as a partisan GOP leader and go after his votes against increasing the minimum wage, against stem cell research funding, and other science related votes.

Paulsen says he can work across the aisle, evidenced by him passing more legislation in the minority than when he was in the majority.

GOP observers saw Bonoff as a potential general election threat because she was more moderate, but they admit that she was gaffe-prone and they had video of her boasting about leading the charge to increase the gas tax. The Republican case against Madia is more difficult because he lacks any real record.

Madia describes himself as a fiscal conservative, but Republicans believe he is vulnerable on economic issues, including being against the economic stimulus package, in favor of repealing the Bush tax cuts and increasing the capital gains tax.

They’ve also started to plant the seed that he is a candidate who will say anything to get elected.

Madia talks about being a former Republican who switched to the Democratic Party in 2003. But before the DFL endorsement convention, Madia told Minnesota Public Radio that he voted for Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race. After the convention, he retracted that and said that he had indeed voted for Bush in 2000 and had misspoken to MPR. Madia says he supported McCain in the 2000 GOP Presidential primary.

In general, Madia’s supporters constantly talk about his bipartisan nature and temperament. And Democrats believe that the 30-year-old’s life story makes him a different kind of candidate. He obviously talks about the war, but also changing the culture in Washington and health care.

Since he came on the scene only recently, Madia’s candidacy is viewed as having both a huge upside and an equally large downside. His only test thus far has been appealing to 150 party activists. Now he has to put together a much larger effort.

The DFLer raised $362,445 through March 31 and finished the period with $190,368 in the bank. Paulsen raised $772,199 through the first three months of the year and finished the quarter with $688,342 on hand.

DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen has already hosted a fundraiser for Madia, who also plans to tap into money from the Indian community. Paulsen appeared at a June 9 fundraiser with Vice President Dick Cheney, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by Democrats. Cong. Michele Bachmann (R-MN 6) and Coleman did not attend.

Republicans are unclear how the contrast in style between the candidates will play out.

Paulsen is intelligent but low-key math guy while Madia is the young, articulate attorney. According to one state source, Paulsen is improving as a public speaker, but debates aren’t likely to be his best format against Madia.

The Democratic Performance Index of the district is 47.1%, according to the National Committee for an Effective Congress, a Democratic group. That certainly makes it winnable for Democrats, but not a slam-dunk.

Sen. Coleman will need to run up his margins in the affluent GOP areas of the 3rd District, and it’s unclear how Al Franken’s recent struggles will affect the race, if at all.

The Bottom Line
“Both candidates are stressing the center and bipartisanship because this is a race for the middle,” said national columnist Barry Casselman, who lives in Minneapolis. “This is the most swing district in the state.”

Madia remains something of a wild card, since he is untested. He’s articulate and a hard worker, but questions remain about the kind of campaign he will put together.

Paulsen will need to find a way to overcome the poor political environment and appeal to independent voters in the district who are use to voting for Ramstad. In this regard, the outgoing congressman could be a significant asset, should he choose to campaign hard for his former staffer.

This should be one of the best races in the country to watch. Toss-Up.