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Flanked by a half dozen supporters at the State Office Building, former Eagan state Rep. Mike Obermueller made his campaign against Congressman John Kline official this week. “John Kline hasn’t changed Washington nearly as much as Washington has changed John Kline,” Obermueller told supporters on Monday.

DFLers eye friendlier turf in Kline’s redrawn district

Mike Obermueller’s entrance into the congressional race marks a new DFL fervor in Minnesota’s 2nd District. In this photo, Obermueller announces his candidacy Monday at the State Office Building. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Former state legislator Mike Obermueller hopes to oust five-term incumbent

Flanked by a half dozen supporters at the State Office Building, former Eagan state Rep. Mike Obermueller made his campaign against Congressman John Kline official this week.

“John Kline hasn’t changed Washington nearly as much as Washington has changed John Kline,” Obermueller told supporters on Monday before he filed as the DFL-endorsed candidate in the 2nd Congressional District. He railed on Kline for his votes on everything from Medicare and tax policy to higher education. “Whatever he thought he was going in there for, things have changed now. The time has come to put some better leadership in Washington.”

Obermueller’s entrance into the race marks an all-new DFL fervor in Minnesota’s 2nd District. The seat, which has been held by Kline for the last decade, picked up strong Democratic turf while shedding some reliably GOP territory under the state’s new redistricting maps. The new lines enticed three first-ever congressional candidates to jump into the mix, with Obermueller prevailing in a four-ballot contest for the endorsement.

“That’s new territory for the DFL and they are kind of chomping at the bit,” said 2nd District Republican Chairman Mark Westpfahl. “It’s going to be a challenge more so than any other year.”

But while DFLers are touting new, friendlier district lines and a high-profile candidate in Obermueller, Westpfahl and other observers say Kline is still a lopsided favorite to prevail with his name recognition and fundraising prowess. The real test could be in 2014, when Kline is rumored to be considering retirement. Obermueller and other DFLers are looking to build their organization and presence in the new district for when that time comes.

The contenders

Obermueller grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin before heading to Iowa to study political science and communications. After attending law school, he moved to Minnesota to take a job with the firm of Winthrop & Weinstine, specializing in commercial and construction law. (He’s currently transitioning out of that job as he heads into full-time campaigning.) It took two tries for Obermueller to win former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s old House seat in Eagan from then-GOP Rep. Lynn Wardlow. When he finally prevailed in the 2008 election, it was only by about 500 votes.

But he was quickly ousted from the chamber in 2010 in a close race against Doug Wardlow, the son of the man he defeated. In challenging Kline, Obermueller is pushing his rural roots and suburban residency as a way to connect with every person in the sprawling congressional district, which stretches from south of the Twin Cities down the eastern border of Minnesota.

Kline, a Pennsylvania native, spent 25 years in the United States Marine Corps, earning a slew of military honors before eventually serving as a senior military aide to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Kline made his first run for office in 1998 against 6th District DFL incumbent Bill Luther, falling short with 46 percent of the vote. He sought a rematch in 2000, narrowing the margin of defeat to about 5,400 votes. After the 2000 census, Minnesota’s congressional map was radically altered. The 2nd District was dismantled and formed anew in the southern suburbs of the Twin Cities, while the 6th District was pushed slightly to the north and made significantly more GOP-friendly. Both Kline and Luther opted to run in the 2nd District; this time KIine won by a 53-42 margin.

He went on to secure comfortable margins in the next four elections. Kline’s office did not return a call seeking comment.

New map benefits DFLers

Democrats point to the new maps when asked why they are suddenly so sunny about their prospects in the district. Before the state’s new political lines were solidified in February, the 2nd District was reliably conservative. Two-thirds of the district fell in the metro area, but rural areas in Rice and Le Sueur Counties played a major part in keeping Republicans in control.

More than half of the district’s voting population opted for GOP presidential candidates John McCain and George W. Bush, and in 2010, Kline beat DFL challenger Shelley Madore with 63 percent of the vote. But the district experienced massive population growth over the last decade, and by 2009, it ranked number two among Minnesota’s congressional districts in terms of population growth. Under the new maps, it was inevitable that the district would shrink.

The new maps provided little good news to Team Kline. In addition to LeSueur and Rice Counties, the district lost Carver County, one of the most conservative in the state, to the 3rd and 6th Districts. On top of that, the district picked up reliably DFL parts of Rep. Betty McCollum’s old 4th District in West St. Paul, and parts of South St. Paul and Mendota Heights. Kline saw his comfortably conservative district – with a plus-four GOP index – move about two points toward the middle, Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier said.

“Obviously it’s less of a Republican district but it’s still not a DFL district,” he said, adding that Kline has stepped up his campaign appearances in the district. Kline also sent out a recent fundraising solicitation to add to his already burgeoning war chest for what he says will be “our toughest race since we defeated Bill Luther in 2002.”

“He’s making a conscious effort to send out more press releases and attend more events,” Schier said. “You can see that John Kline is more worried about this race than he has others.”

Political and funding realities

For Schier and others, money is essential in the metro-area district; the Twin Cities media market is one of the most expensive in the nation. “It’s in the metro media market, which makes this one of the most expensive seats in the country,” DFL operative Darin Broton said. “If it was an open seat, it would probably be the most competitive seat in the state, but John Kline has already raised a good chunk of money.”

Kline reported about $1.3 million in receipts in his first-quarter fundraising reports this year, and he still has just more than $1 million on hand. Obermueller has not reported any fundraising numbers yet, but he’s touting the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which put him on its “Red to Blue 2012” effort under the “Emerging Races” subcategory. The backing comes with no up-front financial commitment from Washington Democrats, but will allow the Obermueller camp to tap communications, strategy and technical support.

In early April, the DCCC attacked Kline with radio ads that railed on his votes on Medicare. The move was quickly belittled by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which said the DCCC spent just $100 to broadcast its ads against Kline. “I don’t think [Democratic groups are] really going to get involved in this race until you see Obermueller raising a lot of money on his own or until you see public polling showing that the race is winnable and tight,” Broton said.

For Mike Osskopp, Kline’s former district director, national and state Democratic groups will be focused on the more winnable 8th Congressional District race and regaining majorities in the Legislature. “They won’t spend 49 cents on Mike Obermueller, especially with Chip Cravaack just up the road,” he said.
And despite Obermueller’s popularity among Democrats, Osskopp says his political profile is no different than Madore’s. “Go back two years ago – [Kline] beat Shelley Madore by 30 points,” Osskopp said. “Mike Obermueller is a mirror image of Shelley Madore. They both got elected to the House, voted like Democrats, and both got fired after one term. Let’s give the Democrats a couple of points for the new district lines, and let’s give them a few more points for having some Democrats at the top of the ticket, but when it’s all said and done, John Kline wins by 22 to 23 points.”

By many accounts, it would take something big – either a scandal or a massive anti-incumbent wave in the general election – to push Obermueller over the finish line. “There would have to be a big Democratic tide, like in 2006. It would probably have to be like that or greater and that doesn’t seem that likely at this point,” St. Olaf College political science professor Dan Hofrenning said. “Everything points to a tough, close presidential race. Something dramatic would have to happen for Obermueller to win.”

For Osskopp, there’s little chance of either. “One great thing about working for John was you would never wake up in the morning worried about seeing his name splashed on the front page for doing something you couldn’t imagine he would do,” he said. “There’s no chance; the guy’s an Eagle Scout.”

Try and try again?

Democrats aren’t exactly used to putting effort into the 2nd District. Facing dim prospects in 2010, DFLers endorsed political neophyte Dan Powers, who was then defeated in a DFL primary election by Madore. The move split allegiances among DFLers in the district and highlighted what has historically been an unorganized and ineffective political group.

Now they are looking optimistically at future elections in the district, especially amid rumors that Kline will not run again in 2014. Part of Obermueller’s success with delegates was a promise to run more than once for the seat, much like Kline had to do to finally win.

“I’ve got to give the DFL credit, they see that there’s more opportunity than they’ve had in the past,” Westpfahl, the 2nd District GOP chair, said. “It does challenge our House and Senate candidates to step up our game to make sure we are not taking things for granted. We are not handing this area over and we are not going to rest on our laurels.”

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