Just two years ago, one of the state's hottest political contests was for the open 3rd District congressional seat.
This year, the race between first-term Republican incumbent Erik Paulsen and his DFL challenger Jim Meffert was hardly getting noticed outside of the western suburbs.
But then Paulsen took the unusual step of launching an all out advertising assault against the relatively unknown Meffert.
If you've watched Twin Cities television recently, you've probably seen a Paulsen campaign commercial. Two of them take direct aim at Meffert.
Paulsen Ad: Why is Jim Meffert running a negative campaign? He doesn't want to talk about his extreme agenda. Meffert's for the trillion dollar health care takeover, and a massive $500 billion cut in Medicare. Jim Meffert, don't cut my Medicare (fade).
"Well, the first time I saw the ad I was sitting with my 12 year old. He said to me, 'Dad, I didn't know that you were that evil.'" Meffert told MPR News. "And I said, 'I didn't either.'"
After reassuring his son, Meffert issued a news release describing the Paulsen ad as distorted and dishonest.
The former Minnesota PTA president also suggested that the attack might be a signal that Paulsen was worried about the election.
But Meffert couldn't afford to respond with his own TV ads. He was far behind Paulsen in the money race in July, with just $215,000 raised compared to $2 million for the incumbent. Still, Meffert said the ads have helped energize his campaign.
"We've got people in Washington and St. Paul who are making excuses and playing the same old political games and hiding behind a ton of money that they're raising," he said. "And I see the current incumbent as one of those people, and I'm tired of it. Most of the people in this district that I talk to are absolutely sick and tired of it also, and they want a different voice."
Former 3rd District Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad took note of the anti-Meffert ads, and questioned Paulsen's strategy. Ramstad said the negative ads probably raised Meffert's name identification from zero to 70 percent overnight.
Paulsen makes no apology for ads he insists are based on the issues of the campaign. He said he was simply trying to draw distinctions between himself and Meffert.
"My opponent did his own negative ads for at least several months, in doing web ads and daily press releases and mistruths and mischaracterizations," he said. "I'm not going to sit back and just take that. It's very clear to draw those distinctions.
President Obama won Minnesota's 3rd district by 6 percentage points in 2008. But in the battle to replace the moderate Ramstad, those same voters favored Paulsen over DFLer Ashwin Madia by a similar margin, roughly 28,000 votes. This year, the national political winds appear to be blowing in the favor of the GOP, but Paulsen is downplaying any favorable climate.
"Well I don't take anything for granted," he said. "And campaigning for my very first re-election, I'm focused on what my constituents are telling me to be focused on. It's been my top priority. It's jobs and it's the economy and it's spending." David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University, said he thinks Democrats were preoccupied by other races and missed an opportunity to help Meffert make the 3rd District race closer. Schultz said Paulsen's negative ads may have already sealed Meffert's fate.
"John Kerry learned this back in 2004 that once you get swift-boated or once you get defined or painted into a certain position, it's hard to undo it,"
Voters will again have a third option on the ballot. Jon Oleson, the Independence Party candidate, is running with no money at all. But Oleson insists he's a serious candidate and a good fit for the district.
"I don't believe I've talked to one person, and explained why I'm running, that hasn't been very much in agreement," Oleson said. "In fact it's oftentimes led to somewhat lengthy dialogue about how they are basically repeating the reasons why I'm running and describing their concern."
Two years ago, Independence Party candidate David Dillon received 11 percent of the 3rd District vote. This year, Dillon threw his support to Paulsen.