On Thursday morning a dozen conservative activists, including GOP state Rep. Cindy Pugh, gathered in U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen’s Eden Prairie office seeking an audience with the congressman. The group was upset over recent comments by Paulsen suggesting that he would be willing to break with the GOP House leadership in order to end the federal government shutdown.
“I will look at anything that comes in front of me to end the impasse, because we do need to put an end to it,” Paulsen told the Star Tribune shortly after the shutdown commenced.
Paulsen made similar comments to KARE 11 on Tuesday. “I think if I had the opportunity just to fully fund the government, I would do so,” he said.
Those comments have landed Paulsen on a list compiled by the Huffington Post of 20 Republicans willing to vote in favor of a government funding bill with no strings attached. That number is potentially significant, because it’s more than the 17 Republicans required to pass a bill if all Democrats support it.
But that stance angered the conservative activists who met at Paulsen’s office in the 3rd Congressional District and they wanted to speak directly with the third-term congressman. They were greeted cordially by Jake Coleman, Paulsen’s outreach district coordinator, but informed that the congressman is in Washington.
“I’m stunned and in disbelief that he would bolt from his own leadership,” said Vince Baudette, a Victoria resident. “Can you get him on the phone?”
Coleman promised to do his best to connect the visitors with Paulsen, but while they were waiting it became clear that it would be extremely difficult for him to mollify his critics on the right. Gary Heyer, a conservative activist from Chaska and a delegate to the 2012 Republican National Convention, wanted a conservative Republican to challenge Paulsen for the GOP nomination in the next election cycle.
“He is not listening to us regarding Obamacare,” Heyer said. “We are just absolutely dead set against Obamacare.”
GOP activist Sheila Kihne, who helped organize the visit to Paulsen’s office, expressed frustration at his accessibility. “He hasn’t had town halls. We haven’t had a chance to let him know what we think face to face, and it’s frustrating,” Kihne said. “I just want to talk to my congressman.”
Swing district Republicans could face ire
The showdown at Paulsen’s office underscores the politically tricky situation in which he finds himself. Paulsen represents a swing district — the Cook Partisan Voting Index gives Republicans a 2-point generic advantage there — that President Barack Obama carried in both the 2008 and 2012 elections.
Despite the competitiveness of Paulsen’s district, he has won in recent election cycles by overwhelming margins. He carried the district by more than 20 percentage points in 2010 and by 16 percentage points in 2012. No DFL challenger has so far emerged to take on Paulsen in the next election cycle.
But Republicans appear poised to take the bulk of the blame for the deeply unpopular government shutdown. A CBS News poll released on Thursday found that 44 percent of respondents blamed Republicans in Congress for the shutdown, compared with 35 percent who blamed Obama. If the gridlock continues for a significant amount of time, it could begin to erode Paulsen’s strong political standing.
“It’s interesting how energetic Erik Paulsen’s been in trying to stress his pragmatism,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. “I think he’s certainly someone who, if he’s not careful, could find himself tarnished if he’s seen as part of an intransigent Tea Party faction.”
Jacobs also points out that Paulsen has been careful to cultivate a profile that would allow him to be competitive in a future statewide race, whether for Senate or governor. “Paulsen has clearly larger ambitions,” Jacobs said. “He needs to be careful that he doesn’t get tarnished as an ideologue.”
Veteran GOP operative Gregg Peppin sees little chance that Paulsen will get dragged down into the shutdown muck given his track record. “He’s always come through very comfortably,” Peppin said. “He’s been good at responding to constituent issues and constituent concerns.”
U.S. Rep. John Kline finds himself in a similar conundrum. The 2nd Congressional District is similarly competitive after the 2010 redistricting process, and DFLers have been vowing to give Kline a serious challenge. But in 2012 Kline still won re-election by 8 percentage points over former state Rep. Mike Obermueller, while Obama narrowly outpolled Mitt Romney in the district. Obermueller is planning to challenge Kline again in the next election cycle. Kline was among nine GOP incumbents against whom the House Majority PAC, which is seeking to win control of the House for Democrats, began a shutdown-related online advertising campaign on Thursday.
Despite the similar circumstances, Kline has followed a different approach to the shutdown. He’s been completely off the radar screen since it began. That’s probably in part because he’s known to be close to House Speaker John Boehner and is part of the leadership as chair of the Education and the Workforce Committee.
“I see him basically as lying low,” Jacobs said. “He’s clearly open and receptive to some kind of compromise here. But I think he’ll stick pretty closely to the Speaker and I don’t think he feels the heat on the back of his neck the way Paulsen does.”
The other potentially vulnerable incumbent is DFL Rep. Tim Walz. The 1st Congressional District tilts slightly in favor of Republicans, according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, and non-presidential years typically favor Republicans owing to lower voter turnout. But there’s little evidence so far that congressional Democrats will shoulder much of the blame for the shutdown.
“So far the winds coming out of Washington are in the face and against the Republicans,” said Jacobs. “So I’m not sure this is a threat to Walz. But it’s something that he’ll have to keep an eye on, particularly if it drags on.”
Paulsen speaks with activists
Most of the conservative activists gathered at Paulsen’s office on Thursday morning drifted away before they got a chance to speak with the congressman. But Kihne and a couple of others persisted and were able to communicate their concerns on a phone call. Specifically, Kihne said she expressed apprehension that Paulsen might join with House Democrats to end the shutdown and urged him to stand strong against Obamacare.
“He was very cordial, as he always is,” she said afterwards. “He heard us. He understood our concerns.”
But Kihne’s uncertain whether it will have any effect on how Paulsen acts moving forward. “This whole thing is a mess,” she said. “We’ll just have to see how it plays out.”