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Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District should be a battleground in 2012. That’s what the demographics say, at any rate. The Cook Partisan Voting Index ranks it “even” in terms of party edge.

Barnes joins field of would-be Paulsen challengers

Brian Barnes, a DFLer seeking the endorsement to challenge Rep. Erik Paulsen in CD 3, said Paulsen’s “actions are in lock-step with the most extreme elements of the Republican Party.” (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

But no Democrat has won the 3rd Congressional District seat in 50 years

Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District should be a battleground in 2012.

That’s what the demographics say, at any rate. The Cook Partisan Voting Index ranks it “even” in terms of party edge. Barack Obama carried it by 6 percentage points in the 2008 presidential contest, while GOP gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer won it by 8 percentage points two years later. It’s the quintessential swing district.

But the area’s congressional seat has been in Republican control since 1961 — and the contests have seldom been close. In the nearly three decades that former U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad held the post, he won re-election with more than 70 percent of the vote on six occasions. After Ramstad’s retirement, Republican Erik Paulsen won an open seat in 2008 by 8 percentage points. Two years later he rolled to re-election over DFL challenger Jim Meffert with 59 percent of the vote.
So do Democrats have any reasonable chance to compete in the 3rd Congressional District in 2012? “Theoretically yes, practically no,” said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University. “The best time to beat somebody is their first time running for re-election.”

Of course, that won’t stop Democrats from trying to knock off Paulsen. So far two little-known candidates — Sharon Sund and Brian Barnes — have announced plans to seek the DFL nomination.

Barnes is a U.S. Navy veteran and marketing executive. He oversees the marine division of Cummins Inc., a company that manufactures generators. Barnes officially announced that he was seeking the DFL nomination at a news conference this week. “Erik’s record is anything but moderate,” Barnes said of the incumbent. “He may dress like one, even talk like one, but his actions are in lock-step with the most extreme elements of the Republican Party.”

Specifically, Barnes takes issue with Paulsen’s opposition to gay marriage, linking him with conservative lightning rod Michele Bachmann. “From as far back as 2003, as majority leader in the Minnesota House, he was the foot soldier for Michele Bachmann’s gay marriage amendment,” Barnes charged. “He championed her anti-gay legislation.”

Sund is a rental property owner, communications consultant and mother of two. She previously worked for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Sund also cites her family background in campaign materials: She is the granddaughter of a sharecropper.

She mentions Paulsen’s support for Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to curtail spending and reduce the federal deficit, as well as the incumbent’s opposition to federal legislation designed to eliminate pay disparities between men and women, as evidence that he is out of touch with the swing district. “He’s just voted against everything that we stand for in this district,” Sund said.

Sund and Barnes both say they will not run in a primary if they fail to win the DFL endorsement. Each also intends to stay in the race no matter how the district changes once the redistricting process is completed. “I live right in the heart of the district,” said Sund, whose home is in Plymouth. “It would be virtually impossible to redistrict me out without some huge changes.”

But the prospect of redistricting is likely keeping other potential candidates on the sidelines. State Sen. Terri Bonoff, who unsuccessfully sought the DFL endorsement in 2008, has stated that she will not consider entering the race until the exact outlines of the district are known, which isn’t expected until well into 2012. Most political observers believe that redistricting is likely to make the district somewhat less friendly to Democrats.

Ardis Wexler, DFL Party chairwoman in the 3rd Congressional District, says she ultimately expects more challengers to get into the race. “Everyone is waiting to see how the district lines are drawn,” Wexler said. “It’s really premature to think that those are the only people that are in the race. I think Paulsen is vulnerable.”

Recent electoral history suggests otherwise. Schultz points to two possible explanations for why DFL congressional candidates have fared so poorly in the district. Perhaps most significant is the Bachmann factor: The flamboyant Republican has proven a magnet for Democratic dollars and attention in recent years even though she represents the most conservative district in the state. Meffert raised just over $500,000 for his 2010 campaign to oust Paulsen; by contrast Bachmann’s DFL challenger, former state Sen. Tarryl Clark, took in $4.6 million.

“Meffert didn’t really have the money because the Democrats were so bent out of shape about knocking off Bachmann that they didn’t put their money where they should have,” Schultz said. “There was no way she was going to lose that race.”

Schultz suggests another factor in decisive DFL losses is that the party has failed to nominate a candidate with ideal characteristics. He believes that the strongest challenger would be a moderate, pro-choice woman focused on “family security” issues like child care and health care. “They have yet to nominate somebody who fits that profile,” Schultz said.

Meffert has ruled out another run in 2012. Reflecting on why he came up short last year, Meffert figures that roughly 75 percent of the outcome in congressional contests is beyond a candidate’s control, driven by external events like the economy, other political contests and happenings in Washington, D.C.

“I saw a pretty clear path,” Meffert said. “It was there. But whenever you’re running, especially as a challenger, you have to have a number of things break your way, and none of them broke our way.”

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