Craig, Kistner battle over economy, abortion in top-dollar House race

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The Twin Cities' southern suburbs and rolling rural communities that stretch toward Mankato have become a key front in the nationwide battle for control of Congress.

A rematch between Democratic U.S. Rep. Angie Craig and Republican challenger Tyler Kistner has ballooned into one of the most expensive congressional clashes in the country. Both candidates estimate interest groups and individuals have poured roughly $30 million into the contest that will determine the political fate of the Second Congressional District, and potentially the U.S. House.

"A handful of districts might end up flipping control of the entire House. And so the stakes aren't just one more seat in Congress. The stakes are potentially control of the House, which makes CD2 a really, really important race to watch," said Chris Chapp, St. Olaf College political science associate professor. "And obviously a lot of people want to try to influence the outcome."

For Craig, it's a fight to defend a record she touts as bipartisan and ensure abortion access following the fall of Roe v. Wade. For Kistner, it's about inflation and providing a check on Democratic President Joe Biden. They are each hoping their message resonates with an unpredictable district that saw its borders shift during redistricting.

"A third Democrats, a third Republicans and a third of my district, they view themselves very independently — they lean libertarian. They didn't like mask mandates, they didn't like vaccine mandates, and they sure as hell don't want a politician to tell them what to do with respect to their reproductive rights," said Craig, 50, a second-term representative from Prior Lake.

She hopes to pass a law codifying the abortion protections in Roe v. Wade. At a debate Thursday, Kistner said he wants to leave the issue to states and is "pro-life, with the exception of rape, incest and life of the mother."

The 35-year-old Republican, who also lives in Prior Lake, narrowly lost to Craig in 2020, and said that year the issues were national. This year, he said, they are local.

"And what are the local issues people are facing? They are facing record-high inflation and cost of living, they feel it every day when they go to the grocery store and gas station, let alone crime is now spreading into the suburbs and then you have parents that are now concerned about the education system," he said at an economic roundtable in Apple Valley last week with Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.

This week, Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy flew to Minnesota for a Kistner fundraiser, where the economy was once again the central theme.

Kistner said Friday his approach to addressing rising household and gas costs would include cutting spending on "Democrat pet projects." Federal cash should go to national security, infrastructure, American businesses and spurring energy production, he said, adding that there should be more incentives for companies to add jobs.

Craig highlighted the passage of the federal Inflation Reduction Act and pointed to her bill to cut the federal tax rate for small businesses to help them with rising costs. She supports an "all of the above" approach to energy, including additional federal leases for oil and gas as needed, Craig said at Thursday's debate at Dakota County Technical College.

At campaign events, Craig and Kistner work the crowd with different styles. Craig, a former health care manufacturing executive, is attentive and on message. Kistner, who is in the Marine Corps Reserve and consults with businesses and nonprofits on growth and development, brings an informal enthusiasm to events, sprinkling comments like "Let's do this!" into a debate.

Prior Lake Neighbors Magazine Publisher Mark Braaten, who was on the panel at the Apple Valley event with Kistner, said he featured the GOP candidate with his wife and two young kids on the cover of the magazine last year and got to know him over a two-hour coffee.

"It's not even about being congressman, it really isn't. He's about his family, our wonderful community that he's going to serve," he said of Kistner, who he called honest and genuine.

Lakeville residents Chuck and Elise Smith-Dewey, who back Craig and showed up to watch the two candidates face off Thursday, said compared to past Second District representatives — who have largely been Republicans — Craig appears to listen to everyone and is very visible, hosting monthly town halls.

"She does the work, and I think she's built all those bridges and she has a lot of respect from I think people on both sides," said Chuck Smith-Dewey.

Craig frequently points to rankings that give her top marks on bipartisanship and said she votes for bills she thinks are right for her district, such as the bipartisan gun safety reforms and the infrastructure act. Kistner said he would have opposed the infrastructure bill, saying less than half the $1.2 trillion package truly went to infrastructure.

He offered a contrasting picture of Craig, noting she always votes with policies Biden supports, an assertion backed up by FiveThirtyEight's vote tracker.

What gets missed, Craig said, are the times she pushed back against the Biden administration to ensure provisions ended up in bills. Craig stood alongside Democratic colleagues outside the State Capitol on Thursday to trumpet the party-line passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which along with inflation, addresses health care costs and climate change. Afterward, she said she fought to include a key provision allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

She also has a lot of questions about the Biden administration's student loan debt forgiveness, she said at Thursday's debate. Kistner, who noted that he emerged from college with $58,000 in debt, said he can't support Biden's move.

"I'm not so sure about Joe Biden's plan either, to be candid," Craig added.

However, the candidates strongly disagreed on other policy points. Kistner backs school choice legislation, allowing families to devote public dollars to their child's private, charter or public school education. Craig said the federal government's role in helping schools is to bolster funding for special education.

When asked who won the 2020 election, Kistner replied, "Look at gas prices, Biden is the president." Craig said Kistner has been labeled an "election denier."

While crime has been less of a theme in the Second District than other races, it is still a frequent issue candidates hear about on the campaign trail. The state's largest police association and Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie endorsed Craig, while the Minneapolis police union backed Kistner.

An unusual — but not unprecedented — death could add another complication to a race where every vote may matter.

Legalize Marijuana Now candidate Paula Overby died earlier this month. In 2020, that party's candidate in the Second District, Adam Weeks, also died shortly before the election. People who already cast an early ballot for Overby can contact their local election office and ask for a replacement ballot.

"It has the potential to siphon off some Democratic voters," Chapp said of the third party candidate, whose name will remain on the ballot.

In 2020, Weeks received nearly 6% of the vote in the close race decided by two percentage points.