Midterm elections: On the frontline of Democrats' heartland battle to retake the House of Representatives

It would be an understatement of many degrees to say Angie Craig was disappointed when she lost her 2016 bid for Minnesota’s 2nd congressional district.

The former healthcare executive was hopeful about her chances, as were senior Democratic officials. Indeed, they considered the race against an ex-conservative talk radio host who once lamented that men could no longer refer to women as “sluts” one of their best chances to flip a seat long held by Republicans. Her campaign outspent his four to one. As it was, she lost by less than two points, the seventh-narrowest margin in the 435 races for the House of Representatives.

Now, Ms Craig, 46, is back, taking on the same man who beat her two years ago, 62-year-old Jason Lewis. Still smarting from the loss, she says it has made her more determined.

“We have seen just incredible enthusiasm for this campaign and basically getting back to the work the US needs to, in terms of fighting for our families,” she told The Independent. With several weeks of campaigning still to go before November’s election day, she said her team had spoken to 100,000 people in a district of 400,000 registered voters. “It’s been an incredible field effort.”

As in 2016, Ms Craig is bearing the weight of expectations of many. A number of analysts have declared the Minnesota 2nd a “toss-up” that could go either way. With Democrats needing to flip just 23 seats to take control of the House, the lower chamber of Congress where most legislation starts out, and where any effort to impeach Donald Trump would begin, the district is again being seen as one of the most crucial in the nation.

“We really believe we have a lot of opportunity in the House of Representatives to make sure we add an historic number of Democratic women,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, a powerful Democratic fundraising organisation that supports women candidates. “The house also needs to be in Democratic hands so we can hold this Trump administration accountable.”

The Minnesota 2nd covers 3,000 square miles and reaches from the blue suburbs of the twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul, to country towns such as Plainview. It is bisected by three rivers – the Mississippi, the Minnesota and the St Croix – and includes some of Minnesota’s oldest cities, as well as an ocean of recently built exurbs built around strip malls, supermarkets and a skein of highways.

It is 85 per cent urban, 84 per cent white, and the 2016 median household income was $80,128, compared $59,039 nationally. So, while the district narrowly voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, it ought to be to be an ideal place to pick up the college-educated voters, especially women, polls suggest have become turned off by the president’s rhetoric.

Yet on a recent tour of the district, while it was easy to find supporters of both candidates – and some who said their anger about the president was making them vote in a midterm for the first time – it was less simple to find anyone who regretted having voted for either Mr Trump or Mr Lewis.

“I think [Mr Trump] has done a great job,” said a young man in a black T-shirt, chatting with a friend in Eagan. “He has turned the economy around … lowest unemployment rates. He has made headway with North Korea, he is undoing the things we did with Iran. I like where he is bringing the Republican party. And so, in November I will be voting for the Republicans again.”

Nearby, a middle-aged couple heading into Walmart said they were voting Democrat across the ticket. The woman said they cared about social issues and that except for the Democrats’ pro-choice stance on abortion, she agreed with most of their policies. Her husband said: “We’re also concerned about the image of the US and the role the US could be taking in building goodwill around the world.”

In a park in Burnsville, where parents watched their children play, a young man in a baseball cap said he would again be voting Republican because he favoured small government. He rated Mr Trump 6.5 out of 10 for what he had done, and 3.5 for the manner in which he had done it.

“I would like to see him focus on reducing the size of government. He has the ability to reduce the size of his administration,” he said. “I would like him to focus a little more on that, and focus a little less on attacking people, or using language I don’t necessarily agree with.”

Perhaps in order not to scare off independent voters or else rally the president’s base, most Democratic candidates, Ms Craig among them, largely avoid the issue of the retaking the House as being a means to impeach Mr Trump.

But in a leafy side street, a man called Bill said the president needed to be thoroughly investigated – a responsibility, he said, Republicans had vacated. He voted for Ms Craig two years ago and will do so again.


Asked about the allegation of progressives that a number of Mr Trump’s supporters approved of his racist rhetoric, he said: “I think there has to be. I don’t know what else could make you support all the crazy things he has done and the crazy things he has said, without cheering on some that underlying feeling of racism.”

In midwestern Minnesota, which has two Democratic senators, five out of eight Democratic representatives and a Democratic governor, Mr Trump only lost to Ms Clinton 45-46. In 2016, Ms Craig spent much time challenging things said by the former host of The Apprentice, a tactic she has largely avoided this year.

“The number one thing voters tell me is we have to repair the American healthcare system. Right now, the cost of healthcare keeps going up in the country, the cost of prescription drugs keeps going up. Instead of working across the aisle to fix the issues, healthcare has become nothing but a political battle. And at the end of the day, people who aren’t able to afford healthcare, aren’t going to have it,” she said.

“It’s really personal to me. I grew up in a mobile home park. My mom was a single mom. There were times in my own childhood when my family did not have access to healthcare. I spent 22 years working in healthcare. I want to jump in, and try to contribute to figuring out how we revise our system here, to make sure high-quality healthcare is available to every family.”

Ms Craig and Mr Lewis have been doing what every political candidate must do in a state with a large farming population – attend the Minnesota State Fair, where people gorge on deep-fried cheese curds and life-sized busts are carved of young women from blocks of butter. (The women get to take them home at the end of the fair and put the butter in their freezer.)

They have also been holding events at community centres and fire stations. Ms Craig has been attending high school and college sports games.

Mr Lewis declined repeated requests for an interview and his staff failed to provide answers to written questions. In an interview on the MinnPost website, Mr Lewis said he was running on his record of achievements, including criminal justice reform. He pointed to legislation, co-sponsored by Virginia Democratic congressman Bobby Scott, to revise sentencing laws for federal crimes, with the intention of lowering incarceration rates.

The congressman, who defends Mr Trump’s actions if not his style, said this was not “just a regular midterm”. “Lots of good things come to a halt if we don’t prevail,” he said, pointing to wage growth and tax cuts.

Speaking to the Star Tribune, he said Ms Craig was a hypocrite about money. The paper said when, in 2017, she left St Jude Medical, a producer of medical devices, after 12 years, she received $3m in a combination of salary, stock, stock options and deferred compensation from a company savings plan. Mr Lewis claimed Ms Craig benefited from last year’s buyout of St Jude by Abbott Laboratories. “They say actions speak louder than words, and it seems as though Craig was fine with benefiting from rising executive pay when it went to her bank account, even while hundreds of working families across the country lost their jobs,” Mr Lewis said.

Turn-out in midterm elections is almost always lower than in a presidential election. Yet in Minnesota, as elsewhere in the country, there is a sense 2018 may be different, given many will consider it a referendum on Mr Trump.

Brenda Wright, of the public policy think tank Demos, said there were several reasons to anticipate a big turnout of women, and a high number of successful female candidates. One was the MeToo movement, which grew after Harvey Weinstein and other high-profile figures were accused of sexual assault – accusations Mr Weinstein has denied. Another was women’s views about Mr Trump.

“That could definitely be adding to the impetus. Women feeling now is the time to step up.”

This summer, Mr Lewis was in the headlines after comments he had made on his America’s Mr Right radio show in 2012 resurfaced. In one segment, he insulted reproductive rights activist Sandra Fluke, who at the time was a student.

“I know there’s a double standard between the way men chase women … I’m not going to get there, but you know what I’m talking about,” he said. “It used to be that women were held to a little bit of a higher standard. We required modesty from women. Now, are we beyond those days where a woman can behave as a slut, but you can’t call her a slut?”

“This has all been litigated before, and as congressman Lewis has said time and time again, it was his job to be provocative while on the radio,” Mr Lewis’s campaign manager Becky Alery, said in July.

Ms Craig, who is a lesbian and the parent of four adopted children with her wife, said of Mr Lewis’s comments: “I am deeply disappointed by Jason Lewis’s remarks about women and the example they provide to the young men of our nation, including my four sons.”

In other comments made during Mr Lewis’s career as a radio host that also hit the news, he referred to welfare recipients as “parasites” and spoke against same-sex marriage. He suggested children might suffer if their parents were the same gender.

Ms Craig’s campaign responded to those comments with the help of one of her sons, Josh, who addressed Mr Lewis in an online video.

“My mom had to fight for three years for the right to raise me and give me a loving home,” he said. “Jason, I’m doing more than fine.”