Democrats already eyeing Republican congressional seats

Republican party headquarters
Congressman John Kline gives a victory speech on election night at the Republican Party headquarters Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 at the Hilton Hotel Bloomington. Kline won by a narrow victory partly due to redistricting, which chipped away some of his conservative base and replaced it with DFL-friendly territory. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has put Kline's district on its high priority "Red to Blue" list.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Election Day 2014 is more than a year and a half away, and most voters probably want to ignore the next blizzard of political ads for as long as possible.

Not so, for some Democrats in Washington and Minnesota. They believe that all three of Minnesota's U.S. House members could be vulnerable to the right challenger and have set their sights earlier than usual on finding candidates and helping them raise money.

The Republican who may have the largest target on his back is Minnesota's 2nd District Rep. John Kline, who returned to Congress last November with his narrowest margin of victory in years.

That narrower margin was due to redistricting, which took away some of Kline's conservative base and replaced it with DFL-friendly territory such as South St. Paul.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has put Kline's district on its high priority "Red to Blue" list.

DCCC Executive Director Kelly Ward said the committee is talking to last year's challenger, Mike Obermueller, and to Sona Mehring, who is the CEO of the nonprofit company CaringBridge and a political newcomer, about entering the race.

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"We think either of them coming out of that primary would be a strong challenge to Mr. Kline," Ward said.

Graves, Bachmann
Democratic challenger Jim Graves, left, and Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann smile before a debate in St. Cloud, Minn. on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Bachmann narrowly defeated Graves by a margin of 1 percent in the state's most Republican district. Democrats are encouraging Graves to make another run against Bachmann.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

In emails with MPR News, both Mehring and Obermueller said they expect to make a decision within the next several weeks about whether to run against Kline.

Troy Young, a spokesman for Kline's campaign, said in a statement that Democrats are "choosing to engage in petty, partisan politics" rather than fix the nation's problems.

Meanwhile, Democrats are also encouraging hotel owner Jim Graves to make another run against 6th District Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Bachmann narrowly defeated Graves by a margin of 1 percent in the state's most Republican district.

That's a sign, Ward said, that Bachmann's failed presidential bid and tendency to make false and misleading remarks has harmed her credibility even with the base of the GOP.

"I think Graves overperformed expectations and really showed the vulnerability that (Bachmann) faces in her district," Ward said.

In a statement from Bachmann's campaign, spokesman Dan Kotman said the congresswoman was focused on helping residents of the 6th District and was not concentrating on 2014.

"I think Graves overperformed expectations and really showed the vulnerability that (Bachmann) faces in her district."

"The district has consistently chosen to support Rep. Bachmann's work to lower taxes, limit government and protect personal liberty over any other alternatives," Kotman said.

Democrats say they are also looking for someone to challenge 3rd District Rep. Erik Paulsen, though no potential candidates have surfaced yet and Paulsen appears to be a lower priority for Democrats.

A representative from Paulsen's campaign declined to comment on possible challengers in 2014.

Outside groups allied with Democrats such as the House Majority PAC and the Alliance for a Better Minnesota have also stepped up their attacks on all three Minnesota Republicans.

What's driving this Democratic focus on Minnesota? Math. Democrats need 17 seats to recapture the House.

Between partisan redistricting by state legislatures and the increasing tendency of like-minded people to live near each other, there are few competitive House districts left nationwide.

"Where do you go for those?" asks Jessica Taylor, a senior analyst with the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "You're going to look for the seats where Democrats have done best at least nationally and see if you can get good candidates there."

Voters in both Kline and Paulsen's districts narrowly chose President Barack Obama over Mitt Romney last year even as they returned Republicans to the House which puts those districts high on Democrats' list of potential takeover targets.

Taylor says she is unsurprised that Democrats are looking for previously nonpolitical CEO types such as Graves and Mehring to challenge GOP incumbents.

"The members that are there, they've been pretty entrenched for awhile," Taylor said. "If you're running sort of an outsider candidate -- this is something that both parties have really tried -- they can definitely play up their business background."

While Democrats see an opening in Minnesota, can they actually flip any of the seats?

Bachmann, Kline and Paulsen all sit on large campaign war chests and are strong fundraisers. That's another attraction of well-off CEO-type candidates: the ability self-fund a campaign early on, as Graves did last year.

Recent history also suggests that it is very difficult to kick out incumbents. Bloomberg News reported last year that 90 percent of U.S. House incumbents who ran for re-election were sent back to Washington by voters even though Congress as a whole has record low approval ratings.

Another challenge Democrats will face is that the electorate in midterm years is smaller than it is in presidential years. Democrats won't be able to rely on the high-tech turnout machine they mastered in 2012, said Republican consultant Ben Golnik, who helped run former U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack's unsuccessful re-election campaign and has worked on many other campaigns in the state.

"Without the presidential race on the ballot, you'll see some slippage and some drop-off there," Golnick said.

On the other hand, Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken are expected to run again in 2014, and both of them will work hard to turn out Democratic voters.