By: Jessie Van Berkel
Democratic U.S. Rep. Angie Craig was in the heart of her congressional district, past where the suburban sprawl south of the Twin Cities gives way to sloping farmland. She was steering a combine down rows of corn with a farmer who supports President Donald Trump.
“She’s trying to turn me into a Democrat and I’m trying to turn her into a Republican,” said Les Anderson, who has a Craig yard sign at his Goodhue County farm. “We see past the other stuff, just focus on the farm stuff. The stuff we have in common.”
Craig, 48, is highlighting bipartisan achievements as she vies with Republican political newcomer Tyler Kistner for the seat she flipped in 2018, making her a top national target for the GOP. Meanwhile, Kistner, 33, is trying to win over voters with his Marine Corps background and promise that he is part of a new generation of independent thinkers who will bring a different approach to Congress.
“I’m a Republican, I do hold myself to conservative values,” Kistner said. “But at the same time it’s that new generation, the millennials, the Gen Zs, who can truly open up a conversation and hear the viewpoints of everyone and how to best approach the problems.”
What was shaping up to be a heated but fairly typical swing district battle veered into unfamiliar territory in September.
The death of Legal Marijuana Now Party candidate Adam Charles Weeks prompted an ongoing court duel over whether the race should be held as scheduled in November or delayed as a special election in February. After Weeks died, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said Minnesota law requires the election to be pushed back to February.
Craig filed a lawsuit to block the delay, arguing federal law supersedes the state statute. On Friday a federal appeals court allowed the election to proceed on Nov. 3. Kistner, who wants a special election, has vowed take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The timing of the contest matters because Democrats prefer their chances with a high-turnout presidential election that has Trump on the ballot. Trump currently trails in all polls of Minnesota voters, though he is more popular outside the metro region. A February election, when much less is at stake, could have low turnout and be unpredictable.
Despite the court battle, both candidates are urging people to vote now. They are also competing with Legal Marijuana Now’s newly endorsed candidate Paula Overby, whose name is not on the ballot but who could affect the outcome of the race.
Overby was the Independence Party candidate in the Second District in 2016, garnering nearly 8% of the vote in a race that Craig lost to Republican Jason Lewis by less than 2 percentage points. Craig then beat Lewis in a rematch two years later by more than five points, with no third-party candidate in the race.
Although Trump narrowly won the district in 2016, Craig’s victory in 2018 signified a shift in momentum in favor of Democrats, helping them sweep into power in the House. Now Craig’s position as a Democrat in a district Trump won has brought national attention to this year’s race in the Second District, which runs from southern suburbs like Prior Lake and Burnsville south past Wabasha.
Kistner — who has far less campaign cash and is trailing Craig in polls — has questioned Craig’s bipartisan record in Washington, noting that she rarely breaks ranks with her party in Congress. He promises to work more across party lines and would join Third Congressional District Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips on the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.
Craig has emphasized her work with House Republicans, including northern Minnesota freshman Rep. Pete Stauber. Trump has signed two of her bills into law, the most of any Minnesota freshman representative.
Kistner also has sought to put Craig on the defensive by tying her to some Democrats’ calls to defund the police following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Craig has dismissed the claim, noting that she supported additional money for community-oriented policing.
Support for law enforcement has been a recurrent campaign theme for Kistner and other 2020 Republican candidates up and down the ballot as they emphasize the urban unrest that overtook Minneapolis and St. Paul after Floyd’s death. Kistner wants additional training for officers, noting that many departments are understaffed and need more money to hire people who represent the communities they serve. He cites endorsements from the Minneapolis police union and a statewide police association.
Kistner, a runner, suited up in a Kistner for Congress T-shirt and Lululemon shorts this fall for a 100-mile run around the district. He greeted people raking their yards, shook hands or waved from a distance while introducing himself as a Marine special forces veteran.
The impact of COVID-19 is a frequent topic for both candidates as they travel the district. At Illetschko’s Meats and Smokehouse in South St. Paul, chief butcher Mike Illetschko told Kistner how outbreaks at hog processing plants trickled down to hurt his shop’s sales.
Kistner, echoing Trump, wants to let businesses return to full capacity and said the economy needs to reopen. Craig argues that the government needs to first control the virus, saying the Trump administration “has been an abject failure when it comes to dealing with the public health crisis.”
Craig voted for a $2.2 trillion relief package that passed in the Democratic-led House earlier this month, but said she also would support a slightly smaller framework from the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which Kistner also backs.
Kistner called the Democrats’ $2.2 trillion bill a “partisan wish list,” though he said he wants additional aid for small businesses and local governments.
Throughout the campaign, Craig has distanced herself from the progressive wing of Democratic Party. She opposes both the “Green New Deal” energy plan and the “Medicare for All” health care proposals that would end private insurance. She espouses a dollars-and-cents approach to climate change by focusing on the economic benefits of renewable energy.
Kistner fits into the generational split within the GOP on climate change, acknowledging the scientific consensus that humans cause global warming. But he does not support solutions that would sacrifice jobs and the economy. He supported Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, which he said failed to hold countries accountable.
As a former health care executive, Craig has campaigned as a defender of the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, which the Trump administration has sought to dismantle. She also supports a reinsurance proposal Republicans have advocated at the state level. She has pushed for a federal version of the program that aims to keep premiums down by subsidizing insurers.
Kistner, in a break from Trump and congressional Republicans, says he does not favor the full repeal of the Affordable Care Act. He calls it “a great baseline” and said he wants to look for ways to make it more affordable. He has called for allowing more pharmaceutical companies to compete in the U.S., which he said would help lower costs.
But in a race where both candidates said they are willing to split with their parties’ presidential candidates on some issues, the outcome of the election could nonetheless be defined by the top of the ticket.