Why you should care
Karin Housley’s long-shot bid to turn Minnesota red is the end of a winding career transformation.
The belated political awakening for Karin Housley arrived in the tea party heyday of Tax Day 2010. She’d already transformed from TV news producer (“back when it was real news,” she’s quick to clarify) to nomadic pro hockey wife — her husband, Hockey Hall of Famer and current Buffalo Sabres head coach Phil Housley, played for eight NHL teams during a 21-year career — to full-time proprietor of Karin Housley Homes, a high-end real estate agency in the Twin Cities’ northeast suburbs.
“It was frustrating to see the direction our government was going, to see where my tax dollars were going,” Housley says. No stranger to moving, she seriously considered leaving her beloved home state for somewhere with lower taxes and lighter regulation.
In a cozy seating area along the far wall of the open-plan office suite for her campaign for U.S. Senate, she recounts how her kids talked her out of it — and set her on a life-changing course with a simple message: “Mom, you always told us when you’re mad about something, you do something about it. So, what are you going to do about it?” Her answer: Change things from the inside. Housley lost a close race for state Senate that year, then won two years later in a more favorably drawn district. In 2016, she won re-election by 23 percentage points.
I’m not afraid to stand up to anyone, even President Trump.
Now Housley, 54, is making up for lost time. With her business in her adult daughters’ capable hands — “They’re doing better than I ever did,” she says — Housley is gunning for Democratic former Sen. Al Franken’s seat in a special election this November. Standing in her way is the nominal incumbent and former Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, appointed by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton to finish out Franken’s term. If Housley upsets Smith in November, she could eclipse her husband’s fame, even among Minnesota’s legions of hockey faithful. Her down-to-earth vibe combined with name recognition and star power give Republicans their best shot at a statewide triumph in years. Along with gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson’s bid, Housley’s campaign is a key test for state and national GOPers hoping the upper Midwest continues its rightward turn and avoids the much-hyped blue wave.
It won’t be easy. The OZY election prediction model, in partnership with GOP technology and consulting firm 0ptimus, gives Smith a 91.6 percent chance of holding the seat, despite her limited name recognition. Housley’s fortunes could sink further this week amid renewed scrutiny of inflammatory 2009 Facebook comments unearthed by the Huffington Post in which Housley compares then first lady Michelle Obama to a chimpanzee. (Housley spokesman Jake Schneider said the comments were taken out of context.)
Nevertheless, Housley skated through the GOP primary, and recent polling has her within single digits of Smith. She may benefit from a legislative record that ticks critical conservative boxes: She co-sponsored legislation requiring physicians to ask women if they want to see an ultrasound before having an abortion — without courting controversy. As chairwoman of the Senate Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee, her signature issue is reforming Minnesota’s dysfunctional elder care industry, where abuse is rampant. She has clashed repeatedly with deep-pocketed, regulation-averse industry lobbyists. But she passed a reform bill this year attacked as too watered down after the industry defeated her first, more aggressive attempt.
Friend and fellow Republican state senator Carrie Ruud says Housley’s heartfelt support for nursing-home residents reflects her colleague’s decency and humility, despite her quasi-royalty status in hockey-crazed Minnesota. “Karin is as comfortable sitting with her mom in a nursing home as hanging out with [country music star] Carrie Underwood at a concert,” says Ruud. (Phil Housley coached Underwood’s husband, Nashville Predators then-captain Mike Fisher.) It’s a life far removed from the working-class St. Paul suburb where Karin and Phil grew up and fell in love in high school — then stayed together through all those NHL trades.
Housley’s U.S. Senate run may fly in the face of popular issues she’s championed in the past. She turned against an initiative she once supported, for example, that would have made it easier for employees to file sexual harassment lawsuits against employers after Republican leadership balked. Amid charges that business groups had applied pressure, Housley — who’s running for a seat vacated by someone credibly accused by multiple women of unwanted touching and other lewd behaviors — cited worries over “unintended consequences” and the need for “proper due process.”
Kari Dziedzic, a Democratic-Farmer-Labor state senator from Minneapolis who co-sponsored the amendment, admits that “the House bill had broad bipartisan support,” without directly faulting Housley. But the Smith campaign isn’t so forgiving. “Nothing speaks to how quickly Housley caters to powerful special interests than how she single-handedly killed the bipartisan effort to make [what a local news outlet called] ‘the most significant update to Minnesota’s sexual harassment laws in years,’” Smith spokeswoman Jen Gates said in a campaign release. Schneider, Housley’s communications director, replies: “Karin has said repeatedly that sexual harassment should never be tolerated,” and the bill simply “needs the chance to go through the proper channels.”
Like most Republicans running for statewide office in purplish Midwestern states, Housley must also play both sides of a deeply polarized electorate. She gave President Donald Trump an “A” in a January TV interview and warmed up the crowd at a Trump rally in June, but her support for the administration isn’t unconditional. Housley lodged vocal opposition to Trump’s decision to limit the use of fines to penalize nursing homes cited for resident neglect or abuse. Caught between protectionist iron miners and soybean farmers under existential threat from tariffs, she’s ambivalent on Trump’s trade policy. “I’m not afraid to stand up to anyone, even President Trump,” she says.
Though Housley brushes off the partisan imbalance in this Year of the Woman, the numbers don’t lie. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, Democrats nominated twice as many female U.S. Senate candidates and more than triple the number of U.S. House candidates as Republicans this year. While this is an all-female race, a female Republican senator is a rare find — there are only six in the Chamber now. If Housley pulls off the unlikely purple-state win, she would instantly be lumped in with the pivotal duo of Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine). Talk about a power play.