BURNSVILLE, Minn. -- Congressman John Kline's retirement has created a rare open seat in a swing district, setting up a heated Republican primary contest for next Tuesday.
With primary election turnout typically low the three top candidates all believe they have a shot at winning the GOP nomination in the 2nd Congressional District.
Long-time conservative talk radio personality Jason Lewis won the Republican Party's endorsement at the district convention, and will have the backing of the party's volunteers heading into the Aug. 9 primary.
Lewis is best known by his radio moniker "Mr. Right" but says he won't easily be labeled if he lands in the Beltway.
"I want to be my own man in Congress, and that means you’re not going to put party or a caucus before principle," Lewis told KARE. "You’ve got to go there and do the right thing."
The incumbent, Rep. Kline, has endorsed political newcomer Darlene Miller. She owns Permac Industries, a precision machined parts manufacturing company in Burnsville. Kline narrates and appears in a Miller political ad.
"You know the number one issue I hear from people in our district is their fear of ISIS," Miller told KARE. "There is strong fear of terrorism."
She bought her company in 1992, and is confident her small business perspective will be an asset in Washington.
"There so much overprotection and red tape. There’s city, county, state, federal -- all sorts of different laws, and rules from the Department of Labor, OSHA, EPA, that you don’t where to turn."
John Howe, a former state senator who has also served as mayor of Red Wing, is the only person in the primary race with previous legislative experience. He received the Star Tribune's endorsement Tuesday as the pragmatic choice for voters in the GOP primary.
"But you combine that with the endorsement from the NRA and it shows I have broad appeal," Howe told KARE.
"You’re going to have to have somebody who is common sense, who isn’t off on the fringe. But unfortunately our system is designed to get the most far out right person endorsed."
While in the Minnesota Senate Howe voted against the Vikings stadium bill because he disagreed with using taxpayer money. He argued instead for user fees, so only those who use the facility would take part in paying for it.
Howe spent 25 years with Sears, at first managing corporate stores and eventually built five of his own Sears stores. He still has one of those stores, which is one of the reasons he supports tax code reforms.
"Right now we’re over $19 trillion in debt and no one is doing anything about it. I think it’s the number one issue facing our country," Howe remarked.
But he won't sign a no-new-taxes pledge, despite pressure from Americans for Tax Reform, the group headed by Grover Norquist.
"I think all options should be on the table, whether we’re dealing with terrorism or talking about our national debt, so all options have to be on the table," Howe explained.
All three candidates call for tightening US borders and lowering corporate tax rates.
Lewis said he felt compelled to seek office because the current state of affairs in the United States reminds him of conditions that led to the rise of Ronald Reagan.
"We have overseas threats. We’ve got domestic threats! This is like 1980 to me! This is almost like the Reagan Revolution to me."
He asserts the US government must focus more attention on Saudi Arabian citizens supporting radicalized Muslim fighters.
"We can talk tough on Russia, Syria and Iran, but the Sunni’s are the ones perpetrating these attack, and a lot of their money is coming from sources inside Saudi Arabia."
Lewis's rivals have warned that statements he made during his long radio career may come back to haunt him, for example remarks criticizing women seeking coverage for contraception drugs in health plans. Lewis said the opinions he expressed as a talk show host will have no bearing on the election.
"Bringing up comments out of context going back 10, 15, 20 years, how is that going to help lower somebody’s health insurance premiums?"
Lewis lives two miles outside the district, which doesn't disqualify him for the seat. He points out that his house used to be inside the 2nd District, but when new boundaries were drawn in 2012 he ended up in the 4th District.
"My wife works in the 2nd District, our school district is in the 2nd District, my doctor's in the 2nd District, and I spend most of my time there!"
The winner will face Democrat Angie Craig in November. Craig, a former health care executive, has no opposition in Tuesday's primary. Spared the expense of a contested nomination battle, Craig currently has more campaign cash on hand than those in the GOP field.
The district was traditionally considered Republican territory, but redistricting has made CD2 more competitive, at least in theory. It stretches from the suburbs of St. Paul on the north to large sections of southeastern Minnesota.
"We can’t just win with just Republicans in the 2nd District in November," Howe said. "We’re going to have to have independents. We’re going to have to have conservative Democrats."
Rep. Kline is vacating the seat after 14 years on Capitol Hill, and is considered by some pundits to be a viable candidate for governor in 2018 if he's so inclined.