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With Bachmann out, Democrats eye Kline seat

Briana Bierschbach//July 31, 2013

With Bachmann out, Democrats eye Kline seat

Briana Bierschbach//July 31, 2013

John Kline

U.S. Rep. John Kline, known for his work on education and military issues, is considered one of the most powerful Minnesota Republicans in Washington.
(staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

But mounting a competitive race remains a long shot

With oft-controversial 6th District U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann out of the picture for the 2014 election cycle, national Democratic groups are looking for their next GOP bogeyman in Minnesota.

Hungry to take back Congress and encouraged by friendlier demographics following redistricting, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the liberal House Majority PAC have set their sights on 2nd District U.S. Rep. John Kline in 2014. Both groups have said they plan to spend against Kline in the 2014 cycle. In fact, the House Majority PAC already has spent $50,000 on Web ads this year attacking Kline’s stand on student loan interest rates.

Former DFL state Rep. Mike Obermueller, who lost to Kline by about 8 percentage points last fall, already has launched his campaign to run again. With more time to campaign and raise money this cycle, Obermueller, of Eagan, says he’s confident Democrats can take out the six-term congressman from Lakeville.

“We really believe that Mr. Kline’s voting record doesn’t match this district,” Obermueller said. “He has stayed off the radar screen while folks like Bachmann have stayed on the radar screen, but we want to highlight that record.”

While the new district lines and the area’s evolving demographics have been trending more DFL over the last decade, most political observers say the still-Republican-leaning 2nd District hasn’t changed enough to take out Kline, a well-funded incumbent who makes far fewer waves than a controversial figure like Bachmann.

“Kline won by 8 points in a Democratic wave year in the state, when Bachmann was struggling to survive,” Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier said. “If this is at the top of [Democrats’] list, they aren’t going to take the House back.”

2nd District slowly shifts DFL 

Unlike Minnesota’s staunchly conservative 6th District, which became safer for Republicans under the 2012 redistricting maps, the 2nd District lost some reliably GOP voting blocs through the process.

The Minnesota River winds along the newly configured 2nd District’s southernmost boundary, while the eastern lines of the district run along the border of the state. The district climbs up and encompasses the Twin Cities’ southeastern suburbs, including the district’s two largest communities, Burnsville and Eagan. The 2nd District stretches as far west as Belle Plaine.

But it’s the addition of parts of West St. Paul and South St. Paul at the district’s northernmost point that has given Democrats hope. Those areas reliably vote DFL. Minorities now make up about 15 percent of the 2nd District’s population, an increase of about 8 percent from the old district. To make matters worse for Republicans, the district also shed GOP strongholds in Carver, Rice and Le Sueur counties.

“That’s the promised land for the GOP — Carver County,” Schier said. “The new lines definitely made this district far more competitive.”

Some of those changes were evident in the 2012 election results. DFLers won only 13 legislative seats in the area, compared with Republicans’ 16, but the GOP lost major ground in suburban areas such as Eagan and Burnsville. Voters in the 2nd District also shot down a GOP-led constitutional ban on gay marriage, putting up only 46 percent yes  votes.

Voting tendencies actually started shifting Democratic in the 2nd District long before the new lines were drawn, particularly as the population swelled over the last decade. In the 2004 presidential election, for instance, the district supported President George Bush with 53.9 percent of the vote to Democrat John Kerry’s 45 percent. By 2008, President Barack Obama lost to GOP presidential candidate John McCain by only 2 percent of the vote in the district. Last fall, Obama very narrowly defeated Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney under the new district lines.

Kline a stronger incumbent 

Bachmann’s controversial positions made her seat competitive, but most political observers say Kline is a steady incumbent who has the opposite effect on his swing district.

While Bachmann and other Republican candidates struggled to hold on to their seats last fall, Kline’s 8-point margin was comfortable.  In 2010, a strong year for Republicans, Kline defeated DFL challenger Shelley Madore by a 27-point margin.

“The incumbent re-election rate is really high in Minnesota,” St. Olaf College political science professor Dan Hofrening said. “[Kline] doesn’t have the controversial politics or the mistakes of Michele Bachmann. He tends carefully to his name recognition.”

As chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Kline is regarded as one of the most powerful Minnesota Republicans in Washington. He’s a close ally of House Speaker John Boehner, and he has earned a reputation as a serious lawmaker with a wide knowledge of education and military issues. Before getting into politics, Kline spent 25 years in the U.S. Marine Corps and served as a military aide to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

“Kline does well with voters. He’s a military man, and that resonates with a lot of people in this district,” said Bill Jungbauer, chairman of the 2nd District Republicans. Many of the voters in the district’s new South St. Paul area are blue-collar workers and veterans who likely voted for Obama and crossed over to vote for Kline for Congress, Jungbauer said. “You used to see [Tim] Pawlenty signs next to Jim Metzen signs and Joe Atkins signs in South St. Paul,” he said. “That area doesn’t automatically go to the Democrats.”

One thing Bachmann and Kline do have in common is the capacity to pull in impressive fundraising hauls. Kline raised nearly $483,000 in the second quarter of this year and has $1.1 million on hand, giving him a formidable war chest in his re-election contest.

“John is well-liked around here, and he’s a respected guy in Washington,” said Bron Scherer, the treasurer of the Republican Party of Minnesota, who lives in Northfield. “He won by 8 points last time in a bad election for Republicans, when a lot of our state legislators lost their seats. The bottom line is: John is well-liked in this district by Republicans, independents and some Democrats.”

The competition 

DFLers in the district say that they got a late start in the 2012 cycle but that this year will be different. Obermueller announced his plans in April to take on Kline again, giving him 18 months to campaign. Last cycle, he had about five months to challenge Kline after winning the DFL endorsement.

Obermueller is the presumptive favorite to win the endorsement again, but he is facing a challenge from two other DFLer candidates, including Thomas Craft, a former volunteer for Obermueller’s congressional campaign.

“Mike Obermueller went into the race late, so he was behind the pace in fundraising. He had a good effort and he is in it again, only now with more time,” said Gary Meyer, treasurer of the 2nd District DFLers. “Name recognition was a weakness for Mike. He didn’t have enough time and money to get his name out there. More people are aware of him now.”

As of early July, Obermueller had raised $130,000 and had $93,000 in the bank.

In the last campaign, Obermueller and national Democratic groups highlighted Kline’s support for the Republican House budget plan. This cycle, they want to go after Kline on education issues.

Obermueller has hosted several roundtables in the district to discuss higher education and veterans’ issues. The DFL Party also has started attacking Kline early, hosting a rally at the University of Minnesota to protest the increase in student loan interest rates.

“If you look at Mr. Kline’s support, it’s very soft in this district,” Obermueller said. “As soon as people hear about my bio and my stance on the issues, they choose me. Kline hasn’t had a challenger in the last four or five years who was able to mount an effective challenge to his message. He has built a moderate message and says that he wants to work to the middle. But if you look to his voting record, it doesn’t show that.”

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