Why you should care
Because a Democrat could lead this affluent Minnesota district for the first time since 1961.
The camera pans on Bigfoot, sitting pensively. “I thought I was good at hiding,” the hairy folk figure muses. “Then Erik Paulsen comes along.” During the attack ad against the Republican representative from Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District, the sasquatch goes on to criticize the incumbent’s donations from “Big Pharma” and ends up at a pharmaceutical company’s lobby to try to find Paulsen.
The ad brings the spotlight to Minnesota, and onto Dean Phillips, the Democrat challenging Paulsen who has turned one of the most competitive congressional districts in the country into a likely upset. This week, the Minnesota 3rd saw the largest shift in OZY’s exclusive election model with Republican data and technology firm 0ptimus, with Paulsen’s re-election chances falling from 60 percent to just 35 percent. That turns the district from “leaning Republican” to “leaning Democrat” in our model, which also predicts Democrats outperforming Republicans nationally by an average of 9.3 percentage points.
Phillips has faced his fair share of attack ads too — one onslaught from the Republican Congressional Leadership Fund noted the multimillionaire hadn’t provided insurance to his coffee shop employees despite now calling it a “moral right” — but so far, he looks to be in the driver’s seat heading into the race’s final days. The major reason for the shift comes from the September release of a New York Times/Siena poll, the first in the race, which showed Phillips up by 9 points. “It isn’t entirely surprising if Paulsen loses,” says Alex Alduncin, a data scientist with 0ptimus. “But that margin can’t sit well with incumbents in similar Democrat-leaning districts.”
Even without the clever ad, Paulsen faces many of the same problems his suburban Republican colleagues do from Philadelphia to Orange County, California, as they fight to keep control of the U.S. House of Representatives. First, they face a stronger slate of Democratic candidates inspired to run by a divisive 2016 election. Second, they face newly energized progressive activists who are more fired up to vote, donate and volunteer than in recent midterm years — particularly women, who favored Phillips by 25 percentage points in the New York Times/Siena poll. Third, they bear the weight of a president whose approval ratings are dipping at the worst possible time, putting districts previously unattainable for Democrats suddenly in play.
Look again at Phillips: Heir to a Minnesota liquor fortune, the 49-year-old branched out and helped build Talenti ice cream into one of the more successful gelato brands in America. For years, Democrats had tried unsuccessfully to draft him to run … but it took until the election of Donald Trump and congressional Republicans’ moves on health care to convince him it was time. When Paulsen voted for a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, “that really ended my time on the bench and on the sidelines,” Phillips told MinnPost while launching his bid in May 2017.
Since then, Phillips has done what he can to advertise himself as down-to-earth, both “fiscally responsible” and “socially inclusive,” as he puts it in stump speeches and campaign literature. When OZY visited Minneapolis in the summer of 2017 for our year-long reporting project States of the Nation, Phillips was already generating buzz among Republicans and Democrats alike as a serious challenger despite Paulsen’s past electoral success. “He’s a very civic-oriented guy and is legitimately a pro-business Democrat,” Republican Brian McClung, a former top aide to GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said at the time. Phillips is a graduate of the bipartisan Minnesota leadership group Studio/E, which was co-founded by former Target vice president Nate Garvis. There, Phillips often described how the problem in politics “isn’t the hardware. It’s not the process of government, it’s the software — the culture,” Garvis said last year.
The Brown University grad drives a folksy ’60s-era International Harvester truck through campaign stops as Phillips strives to become the first Democrat to lead this affluent suburban Minneapolis district since 1961. Yet despite that ruby-red history, it is one of the 25 Republican congressional districts that backed Hillary Clinton over Trump in the 2016 elections.
The Bigfoot attack echoed local talk, and in fact Paulsen hadn’t held a town hall in six years before scheduling three this spring, perhaps realizing his suddenly perilous position after winning with room to spare for the past decade. Now his opponents are coming out of the woodwork. Or, in the case of his hairiest new critic, out of the woods.