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Sen. Smith's next opponent is still unclear

Now that Sen. Karin Housley has taken herself out of the running for 2020, there's a big question mark on the GOP side of the ledger

ST PAUL, Minn. — US Sen. Tina Smith hasn't made it official yet, but most observers expect her to run for reelection in 2020.  And this time the Minnesota Democrat will be seeking a full six-year term, so the stakes are even higher for Republicans trying to unseat her.

Most experts expected to see a rematch of the 2018 race between Sen. Smith and Karin Housely, a Republican state senator who represents the Stillwater area in the legislature. Last week Sen. Housley took many by surprise, when she announced she'd forego another battle with Smith and instead seek another term in the Minnesota Senate.

"All of a sudden Republicans are scrambling to identify a competitive candidate with donor networks and name recognition," Larry Jacobs of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs told KARE.

"There’s not a lot of folks that meet that billing."

He noted Republicans have had a long dry spell when it comes to statewide elections. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty's reelection victory in 2006 was the last time a GOP candidate won a statewide contest here. Former Sen. Norm Coleman lost his reelection bid in 2008 by just a few hundred votes, in a race that featured recount battle that dragged on until July of 2009.

Pawlenty's comeback attempt in 2018 ended in a stunning GOP primary loss to Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who went on to lose to then-Rep. Tim Walz in the General Election.

Jacobs noted the dilemma for Republicans in a statewide election is fielding a candidate who is conservative enough to win the party's nomination, and yet moderate enough to appeal to Twin Cities suburban swing voters.

Former Congressman Jason Lewis has announced an interest in running against Smith, but he's weighing several options including a rematch with Rep. Angie Craig who unseated him in 2018.

Lewis said he believes Democrats, Smith included, are vulnerable in areas outside of the Twin Cities, commonly known as Greater Minnesota.

"The Democratic presidential candidates have shown how far to the left that party is moving, and people in Greater Minnesota aren't happy with ideas like the Green New Deal," Lewis told KARE.

"Republicans can win here, you also had Norm Coleman and Rod Grams. And President of the United States lost the state by only one and a half percentage points -- Minnesota might be next in line after Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin."

Smith's supporters assert she's be able to appeal to voters statewide because of her work on a bipartisan farm bill. They point out Smith has reached across the aisle on opioids legislation and bills aimed at controlling prescription drug costs.

Eden Prairie music composer and producer Robert Barrett Jr. has launched an active campaign for Senate as a Republican. He has raised more than $10,000 and is using Facebook and other social media platforms to get his name and message out to potential voters.

Rep. Kurt Daudt, the House Minority Leader, is also a name that comes up quite often when people speculate about potential Senate candidates. His time in the spotlight at the State Capitol, and years recruiting candidates and raising money would serve him well, according to Jacobs.

"Kurt Daudt has had a lot of press coverage," Jacobs remarked.

"He’s got decent name recognition around the state. He’s also got quite a donor network, which is very important for anyone trying to take on Smith."

If no viable candidate steps forward, large donors may turn their focus instead to trying to recapture the Minnesota House. Jacobs said the business community in Minnesota has made it a priority to prevent the DFL from gaining one-party control of the State Capitol.

Lewis, a longtime conservative talk radio personality and writer, says he's wait until after Labor Day to decide which route to go. He pointed out that in the middle of the summer Minnesotans are enjoying the outdoors, and not really aren't tracking the 2020 race for Senate.

He cautioned that any Republicans who are tempted to distance themselves from President Trump would do so at the expense of losing the support of the GOP's conservative base.

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