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2nd District race heats up with GOP primary one month out

The Republican battle for Congress in Minnesota's 2nd District is dominated by one word: electability.

Even as front-runners Jason Lewis and Darlene Miller exchange some fire over the economy and foreign policy, they've focused much of their effort claiming that they — and not the other — are the best candidate to beat Democratic nominee Angie Craig in November.

Lewis is a Woodbury resident and former talk-radio host who won the Republican Party's endorsement in May. Miller is a businesswoman who has the backing of the 2nd District's retiring congressman, U.S. Rep. John Kline. They're joined by dark-horse candidate John Howe, a former state senator, and little-known newcomer Matt Erickson of Cottage Grove.

The 2nd District is closely divided between Republicans and Democrats, and as an open seat with no incumbent is one of the highest-profile races in the country. Most national handicappers either rate it as a tossup or give a slight edge to Craig, a former health care executive who clinched the Democratic nomination in January.

Since then, Craig has plotted out her campaign and raised buckets of money. Her campaign said she had about $1.8 million in the bank at the end of June. Republicans, meanwhile, won't have a nominee until Aug. 9. Over the remaining month, the Republicans are competing to pitch themselves as the best bet to take the fight to Craig in the fall.

"I think the Republican primary is competitive," said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. "I think Lewis starts with the advantage, not just because he has higher name ID from his time on the radio but because of the party endorsement."

But Miller's campaign insists she has "the momentum" in the race, and Howe said he's going to "spend what it takes" from his personal wealth to win the nomination.

Quiet race could pick up soon

Despite the high stakes of the Aug. 9 primary, the GOP race has yet to shift into high gear.

Candidates have sent out a handful of emails and postcards and marched in parades. But there have been no recent debates, no television ads and generally not much attention paid to the race.

"There isn't a tremendous amount going on," said David Gerson, a former candidate who dropped out of the race after losing the Republican endorsement in May.

But that could be changing as voters start to pay more attention in coming weeks. Miller launched her first radio ad June 29, while Howe said he'll be placing "a significant media buy" soon.

Erik Radtke, a Republican activist in the 2nd District, said Craig's likely cash advantage in the general election will constrain the GOP candidates from spending too much on their primary.

"They'll keep their powder dry on their TV budgets, expecting a very expensive general election," Radtke predicted.

Lewis, meanwhile, is dividing his attention between the primary and his ultimate goal.

"We're busy doing what we're supposed to be doing ... trying to connect to as many primary voters as possible," he said. "We're also trying to keep a focus on Angie Craig."

Electability is key

Lewis got the GOP endorsement in part because he convinced party delegates that his radio-honed charisma and decent fundraising gave him the best shot of beating Craig.

As the best-known candidate, Lewis said he's the most electable.

"When it comes to pure electability, you need somebody with name ID," Lewis said. "You need someone who people will go, 'I know this guy.' "

While Lewis has impressed observers such as Gonzales with his polished delivery and command of the issues, first-time candidate Miller is a less impressive retail politician. Her campaign manager, George Damian, said voters are looking for outsiders, not smooth talkers.

Miller's campaign, too, is based heavily on her claims to superior electability. In a recent email to supporters, Miller's campaign ratcheted up the rhetoric by calling Lewis "fundamentally unelectable" because of controversial comments he made about slavery in his book, "Power Divided is Power Checked: The Argument for States' Rights."

As part of a discussion of same-sex marriage in the book's audio version, Lewis said: "People always say, 'Well, if you don't want to marry somebody of the same sex, you don't have to, but why tell somebody else they can't?' You know if you don't want to own a slave, don't. But don't tell other people they can't."

Damian said that "these comments will cost Republicans both this seat and hurt us down and across the ballot in Minnesota."

Lewis said that his words are being taken out of context, and that he was actually arguing the pro-same-sex marriage argument was "so ridiculous that if you believe that, you have to believe this position" about slavery.

He acknowledged that Craig and other Democrats will use those comments against him if he wins the nomination, but said those kind of attacks are inevitable from Craig.

Miller and Howe, he said, are using "the Democrat talking points." By attacking him over statements he made in his long career as an author and radio host, Lewis said, they could make their predictions that the statements will doom him in November "a self-fulfilling prophecy."

What's unknown is how much Republican voters will care about Lewis' controversial comments, either on their substance or because of concerns about electability. Miller backers such as state Rep. Drew Christensen, R-Burnsville, said they hear from lots of voters concerned about the Lewis comments. Radtke predicted the comments would be a wash in the primary — turning off some Republicans but attracting others who like Lewis' blunt style.

Howe has also criticized Lewis' statements in the past. He argued that he's the most electable candidate, because he's willing to spend more than a half-million dollars of his own money on the race and is the only one who's held elected office before.

"I'm the only one that's a proven conservative," he said.

A key moment could come when candidates report their fundraising totals for the past three months. None of the Republicans raised money anywhere close to Craig's pace in the first quarter of the year, putting pressure on them to deliver the cash — especially for the candidates who may be trailing.

Foreign policy

If there's been an issue besides electability in the campaign so far, then it's foreign affairs: the policy area with the biggest differences between the candidates.

Miller has made foreign policy a focus of her campaign, and the subject of her first radio ad.

"We must step up the fight against ISIS so we don't have more tragedies over here," the narrator says in the ad. "No one understands that better than conservative Darlene Miller."

Miller takes a hawkish approach to foreign policy in line with that of her endorser Kline, a Marine veteran who is active on military issues in Congress.

Lewis, in contrast, is more selective. He's called for aggressive actions to combat the Islamic State but says deploying ground troops is out of the question. He's also come out in favor of a rapprochement with Iran — a country largely adhering to the Shiite branch of Islam — in favor of combating extremists in the larger Sunni branch.

"The real threat overseas ... is ISIS, it is Sunni extremism," Lewis said. "The Sunnis are being fought by whom? By the Shias. We can't fight everyone at once."

This openness to President Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Iran has drawn fire from Miller, who is strongly opposed to it.

Howe has emphasized foreign policy less, but he said neither Lewis nor Miller has the national security experience to back up any tough talk.

Economy a sidenote so far

National polls consistently show that pocketbook issues are the top priority for many voters, but the economy hasn't gotten much attention in the 2nd District primary so far.

Miller has cited her business experience as proof she could tackle the economy in Washington, but Damian, her campaign manager, said the election is "shaping up to be a foreign-policy election."

Lewis said he hears more about the economy than foreign policy from voters, and recently released a jobs plan. And Howe has long said his No. 1 issue is the national debt. But without huge differences in policy between the candidates, economic issues haven't risen to the fore over the entire 9-month-old campaign.

"They're (all) Republicans," Radtke said. "It's hard to find a substantial amount of difference between them on philosophy."

Minnesota's two-step nomination process

Unlike other states, becoming a party's nominee in Minnesota can involve two steps, not just one.

First, candidates compete to earn their party's endorsement at conventions of party activists. The winner of the endorsement gets to cite the party's support and draw on party resources — but they don't necessarily become the party's nominee.

The second step is the primary election, held in early August each year. Whoever gets the most votes here, whether or not they won the endorsement, becomes the party's nominee and appears on the November ballot.

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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