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Kline retirement opens up district race

Republican Rep. John Kline, a seven-term lawmaker and chairman of the House Education panel, announced Thursday he won’t seek re-election next year in a Minnesota district that has grown more politically competitive in recent years.

Kline has represented southeastern Minnesota’s 2nd District since 2002. The former Marine carved out a niche in Congress on military issues and, more recently, on education issues as the head of the committee. He said he will use the next 16 months to fashion a replacement to the No Child Left Behind education law.

Kline would have lost that gavel after this term as part of a chairmanship term limit. With his 68th birthday arriving Sunday, he said, “it’s just kind of time” to move on.

“It’s time to let someone else have a shot at it,” Kline said, adding, “I’ve enjoyed the fight.”

He told reporters that it’s premature to speculate about a campaign for another office in Minnesota, such as governor or Senate in 2018.

More than a dozen GOP legislators from the area, and several instantly sprang into consideration mode. A Republican from the party’s libertarian flank, David Gerson, was building toward a primary challenge for the second consecutive election cycle.

Matthew Kowalski, executive committee chairman of the 2nd Congressional District GOP, told Capitol Report he was aware of at least two more Republicans from that area who had been considering running to replace Kline. Though, according to Kowalski, those plans had typically been aimed further into the future, with most conservatives figuring Kline would finish out his current term.

“I think people were expecting it sometime soon,” Kowalski said. “But I didn’t expect it this go-around.”

Nor did Kline’s Democratic opponents. Reached shortly after his announcement, Angie Craig and Mary Lawrence, the two prominent DFLers who had been gearing up to oust Kline, told Capitol Report they were surprised not to have to face the incumbent in 2016. Lawrence, a longtime ophthalmologist with the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital system, said the decision might have reflected Kline’s awareness that he would face a “formidable candidate” for re-election.

“My guess is that it factored into his decision,” said Lawrence, who cited her early fundraising prowess as a possible threat to the incumbent.

Both Craig and Lawrence said they would not change much in their current campaign messaging — “I’m running against Republican policies,” Lawrence said — and both predicted that a number of GOP campaigns would emerge in Kline’s wake.

“No matter who the Republicans run, it’ll be a strong candidate — I just assume that from the start,” Craig said. She added: “My focus remains on my message, and making sure Democrats know I’m committed to the endorsement process. I’m extremely humbled by the amount of support we’ve received so far.”

Craig said Kline’s retirement would turn the 2nd CD into an “incredible opportunity” for Democrats to gain a seat in Congress, while Lawrence thought it might make potential donors even more eager to support a DFL candidate.

“I have a lot of fundraising events built into my schedule,” Lawrence said. “Since I’ve got the news, I haven’t been in that seat, yet, but my hunch is that it will help.”

A third prominent Democrat appeared on the periphery Thursday afternoon. Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, issued a statement thanking Kline for his service, as Lawrence and Craig had. Atkins, who lives in the district, and has been the subject of campaign rumors for years, also said he would make an announcement about his own future during the coming week.

Atkins, an attorney, is in his seventh term in the state House, and has previously served as a committee chairman on business and commercial regulation. In 2013, he was lead House author on enacting legislation for MNsure, the state health insurance exchange, and has also played a role in crafting laws aimed at combating fraud.

As for the Republican, or Republicans, that might fill the void left by Kline, Kowalski said he hoped whoever joins the field attempts to craft their own legacy, rather than running on Kline’s tenure.

“I think we need someone with principals, and a fresh vision for people in terms of what we have to offer,” Kowalksi said. “Whoever ends up running, I hope they run on that kind of message, and excite an otherwise pretty lackadaisical electorate, if you look at the turnout from last year.”

Getting to Washington wasn’t easy for Kline, who lost two bids before winning a third time against Democratic incumbent Bill Luther. While there, he has expressed frustration with the ability of a small group within his own party to slow down the legislative process.

Kline has consistently run up large vote margins in a district that Democratic President Barack Obama narrowly won in his 2012 re-election campaign. Without an incumbent on the ticket, Kline said it’s “absolutely accurate to call it a swing district.”

There are more than a dozen GOP legislators from the area, and several instantly sprang into consideration mode.

Staff writer Mike Mullen contributed to this report.

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