Observers: Rep. Tim Walz positioned well despite GOP criticism

Rep. Tim Walz
Rep. Tim Walz speaks to delegates at the DFL state convention in Rochester Saturday, June 2, 2012.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

On paper, Minnesota's First Congressional District appears to be ripe territory for Republicans.

However, political observers say DFL Congressman Tim Walz, who has balanced a relatively liberal voting record in a somewhat conservative rural southern Minnesota district, stands a good chance of winning a fourth term despite voting for Democratic priorities such as the health care overhaul and financial reform.

On a recent morning in a bland conference room deep inside the cavernous Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, Walz is doing what every member of Congress does: speaking to large groups of visitors from back home.

"Well, good morning. Being a school teacher, I know why these front seats are open, and a Lutheran," Walz says, to laughter. "No one's going to sit there."

For the next 15 minutes, Walz speaks to this group of county highway officials about the rise of China, the national debt, details of the latest highway bill and partisan gridlock in Washington.

After his meeting with the highway officials, Walz sits down and cracks open the first of many diet Mountain Dews he drinks to get through the day.

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Unlike many other politicians, Walz says he continues to believe Congress can get some things done.

Tim Walz
Rep. Tim Walz, is a Democrat representing Minnesota's 1st Congressional District. He is running for a fourth term.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

"I see where my colleagues come and everybody runs against Washington or whatever," Walz said. "I think if you're here you have a responsibility to do something about it."

Walz scored a big success on that front earlier this year when President Barack Obama signed the STOCK Act into law.

Sponsored by Walz, the law creates new, tougher ethics rules for Congress and the administration at a time when opinion polls show a public disgusted with Congress.

That success is no surprise to David Wasserman, a political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

"Walz is one of the more impressive Democrats remaining from the class of 2006," Wasserman said.

Wasserman rates Walz's chances for a fourth term as very good.

He cites two reasons: firstly, is Walz's natural political talent which includes his easy-going manner and a reluctance to taunt political opponents.

"I don't shy away from those core values of what builds the middle-class and what builds growth..."

Secondly, Wasserman says Republicans have not picked strong candidates to challenge Walz in what has become a rare swing Congressional district.

Wasserman is convinced the two Republicans, Allen Quist and Mike Parry, who are currently competing in a primary race to take on Walz, will have a tough go.

"More than anything else, I think Republicans have failed to come up with a candidate who can crack the code here, and that's true again this cycle," Wasserman said.

Republicans like to blast the man they call "Washington Walz" for his votes in favor of the health care law and the proposal known as cap and trade, designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

They accuse him of selling out constituents for the sake of liberal ideals. Walz also backs same-sex marriage and abortion rights, which lead National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Katie Prill to call Walz "out of touch" with people in southern Minnesota.

"When he's in his district, he pretends to be a moderate. But when he's here in Washington he votes so far to the left on key issues that matter to his district," Prill said.

In a sign that Walz is not like many of his fellow Democrats, he is also a proud gun owner who has on prominent display in his office a cap from the National Rifle Association that reads "NRA Endorsed."

Despite Walz's vote for Obama's signature initiatives, he has also broken with Democrats on some high-profile issues. For example, Walz supported construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, a project he believes will support union construction jobs in his district.

Walz greets constituents
Constituents wait in line as U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., right, talks with Craig Jaskulke, a local trades union organizer, during a "Congress on Your Corner" meeting at a supermarket in Mankato, Minn. on Friday, Jan. 14, 2011.
John Cross/AP

"I don't shy away from those core values of what builds the middle-class and what builds growth, but I'd also like to think I'm very pragmatic," Walz said.

Walz is also pragmatic in his relationship with President Obama, having hitched a ride on Air Force One during the President's recent trip to Minnesota.

While many Congressional Democrats grumbled that Obama has not courted Congress enough on important issues, Walz disagrees.

"I have to say I don't think him taking me up to the White House and wining and dining over a vote is the way it should be," Walz said. "I think they should and ask our position and I should be able to articulate it, and that's where it should stay. On Keystone they said, "We're sorry you're not going to support us on this but we understand where you stand.' "

Some Republicans hoped redistricting would make the 1st District more likely to elect a Republican this year, but that does not appear to have happened.

In fact, the district did not change much and Walz said he is comfortable with the new boundaries.