ST. PAUL — While Republican and Democratic party leaders are pouring resources into Minnesota’s presidential outcome, they are also looking down the ballot at the state’s junior U.S. Senate seat as a key statewide battleground.
On one side of the aisle is Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Tina Smith. On the other, Republican former-congressman Jason Lewis. According to an Oct. 21 poll of likely Minnesota voters conducted by KSTP and SurveyUSA, the candidates are in a dead heat, with Smith leading Lewis 43-42, with 12% of voters still undecided and a 5-point margin of error.
The Senate race is in ways emblematic of the larger battle over Minnesota’s political identity: A decades-long Democratic stronghold thanks to the deep blue Twin Cities and strong labor unions across the state, President Donald Trump came within a two-point margin of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016. Since then, Republicans have become entranced with the idea of flipping Minnesota’s 10 electoral college votes red — and delivering U.S. Senate Republicans a fresh face.
Smith’s entrance to her seat — by appointment in January 2018, after sexual misconduct allegations were lodged against former U.S. Sen. Al Franken — was nontraditional, though she secured her spot by a 53-42 vote in a November 2018 special election following her appointment.
Now, two years later she’s back in the ring defending her seat from Lewis. Lewis was among a wave of Republicans who rode into the U.S. House on the coattails of Trump, winning in 2016 and serving one term representing Minnesota’s suburban Congressional District 2. He was engulfed two years later by Democrats’ midterm “blue wave,” losing his reelection bid by a six-point margin to Democratic U.S. Rep. Angie Craig in 2018.
It’s voters like those in CD2 that could be key to the race. According to a MinnPost online poll conducted by Change Research Oct. 12-15, the political divide between an ocean blue Twin Cities and scarlet red Greater Minnesota is stark, particularly in the presidential contest. Per the poll, 58% of Minneapolis-St. Paul likely voters surveyed had favorable views of Smith, compared to 9% for Lewis. And in Greater Minnesota, 38% of voters viewed Lewis favorably, compared to 33% for Smith.
In the Twin Cities suburbs, though, the race is closer: 41% of suburbanites surveyed reported favorable feelings for Smith, compared to 40% favorability for Lewis.
This purple middle ground could be the key to securing a win on either side. U.S. Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told The Hill this week that he sees Minnesota’s race as one that could be key to maintaining a GOP majority in the Senate, and that suburban voters could be wooed into securing a win for Trump.
Lewis has hinged much of his campaign on suburbanites, echoing Trump and others’ calls for “law and order” in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, which sparked civil unrest in the Cities and across the country. On Oct. 21, Lewis hosted a “save the suburbs” town hall alongside Minneapolis Police Federation President Bob Kroll, where the campaign discussed “public order and how to keep our communities safe in this ‘defund the police’ era,” per the campaign.
“As riots and unrest push into the suburbs, more and more Minnesotans are concerned for their communities,” Lewis’ campaign wrote in its announcement of the event.
Lewis has joined a chorus of Republican office holders and candidates across the country condemning some progressives’ calls to divert funding away from police departments after the deaths of Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement. Lewis has looped Smith in with those progressives and the “radical left,” accusing her of aiming to “defund the police,” though Smith’s campaign has repeatedly said that is not her view.
In an Oct. 22 campaign ad, Lewis took aim — quite literally — at “the radical left,” which he says “came after Republicans, like me.”
“Now, they're coming after you,” Lewis said before turning and firing three rounds at a target.
And in an Oct. 5 op-ed written for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Lewis wrote that 2020’s election “is a choice between anarchy and American values.”
“If the left has its way, mob rule will be coming for the suburbs,” he warned.
Smith has also characterized her opponent as an extremist, just on the opposite side of the debate. In an Oct. 2 news release, her campaign referred to Lewis as, “a person who inflexibly clings to his extreme, rigid views at the expense of Minnesota's best interests.”
In the months leading up to the election, her campaign has unearthed votes from Lewis' two years in Congress, as well as controversial quotes he made while host of a conservative talk radio show. Among numerous digs, Smith’s team has honed in on Lewis’s vote against the 2018 Farm Bill, as well as derogatory comments he has publicly made about women and people of color.
Asked in an interview with Forum News Service about the comments — including once when he lamented about no longer being able to call women "sluts" — he called it an act of "desperation" by Smith's team "when you're going back over talk shows many, many years to try to find anything you can out of context on a program designed to be provocative."
When asked directly if he regrets the things he has said on his program, Lewis answered "no."
"There's a difference between being a pundit and a politician, always has been," he said.
According to GovTrack’s analysis of Smith’s sponsored and cosponsored bills, Smith ideologically falls somewhere in the middle of many of her Democratic Senate colleagues: slightly left of fellow Minnesotan U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar — who has long branded herself as a pragmatic, moderate Midwesterner — but still to the right of progressives like U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
GovTrack plots Lewis closer to the center than Smith’s statements may lead one to believe — he even falls to the left of Minnesota’s Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson — though the ranking is based on time from when he was in office, nearly two years ago.
In an interview with Forum News Service, Smith touted her ability to work across the aisle, pointing to legislation she has cosponsored with Senate Republicans, as well as her work on the Senate’s Agriculture and Nutrition, Health and Education and Indian Affairs committees. It’s on these committees, she said, that she can best represent the interests of Minnesotans across the political spectrum.
“It’s almost like two Washingtons exist,” Smith said. “There is the Washington where I work, where Republicans and Democrats are trying to figure out how to get things done and we do. We have been able to accomplish that.”
She continued, “There is this other Washington, though, which is the Washington that you see on cable news where (...) everybody is yelling at each other and arguing. Not much gets done in that Washington so I don’t spend a lot of time there.”