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In Minnesota's 2nd District, a real political challenge for Bill Maher

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HBO's Annual Emmy Awards Post Award Reception - Ar
Comedian Bill Maher arrives at HBO's 2010 Annual Emmy Awards Post Award Reception in Los Angeles.
Michael Buckner / Getty Images

Comedian Bill Maher frequently uses his television show to poke fun at Republican members of Congress.

In the coming weeks, he aims to use his national platform to unseat one. His target: U.S. Rep. John Kline of Minnesota's 2nd District. [Maher's video announcement]

Maher, an outspoken liberal who hosts "Real Time with Bill Maher" on HBO, couldn't be more unlike Kline, a conservative who keeps a low profile in Washington.

It was that low profile, along with Kline's reliably conservative voting record and support for for-profit colleges, that Maher cited recently when he announced that Kline had "won" Maher's "Flip-a-District" contest.

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"The real problem in Washington isn't the funniest fools," Maher said. "It's people like our winner tonight, the living embodiment of legislation for hire, the Men's Wearhouse of empty suits, from Minnesota's 2nd District. Come on down Congressman John Kline!"

What happens next, however, is less clear.

In coming weeks, Maher plans to arrive in the district in the southern suburbs of the Twin Cities. But the details are fuzzy, as is Maher's knowledge of the district.

When asked if he knew anything about Kline's opponent, Maher said, "No, I only found out his name this past week when I read John Kline's fundraising letter in response to our picking him."

John Kline
Second District Congressman John Kline visited a classroom at Global Academy in Northeast Minneapolis on March 31, 2014.
Mark Zdechlik / MPR News

Kline's opponent is former state Rep. Mike Obermueller, who failed in his bid to unseat the incumbent congressman two years ago. But that doesn't matters to Maher.

"I don't know anything about him and I don't care," Maher said of Obermueller. "This is not about him. This about the fact that whoever is running against Kline literally couldn't be worse."

It's too early to tell whether Maher's involvement in the race has spurred Republicans to give more money to Kline. But Maher acknowledges that's a possibility. 

"It could, but you know what, he wasn't going to lose anyway," Maher said.

This year Democrats are focused on defending the seat held by U.S. Sen. Al Franken and House seats in the 7th and 8th district. They aren't on offense. 

So Obermueller needs all the attention he can get. He said Maher's announcement has helped his online fundraising but did not say by how much.

"I think what it's really going to do in a practical way is shine a giant spotlight on the votes we think matter most down here," Obermueller said.

Maher, however, said he has no plans to raise money for Obermueller or campaign with him.

That puzzles Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College. He notes that Kline's $1.7 million war chest is more than six times bigger than Obermueller's.

"If he's not going to raise money for Obermueller, how does he help Obermueller?" Schier asked. "It's not clear that he will."

Perhaps the bigger challenge for Maher and Obermueller is attracting anyone's attention.

An opinion poll of the 2nd District issued this week by the Remington Research Group, a small Republican firm with a limited track record, suggests that 60 percent of district residents either hadn't heard of Maher or had no opinion about him and only 9 percent of those polled had a positive opinion of Maher.

Maher said the poll results must be off. 

"I don't think I could have stayed on the air for 21 years and have over four million viewers every week on HBO if the approval rating was only 9 percent," he said.

Troy Young is a spokesman for Kline's campaign, said the congressman has been busy attending events and parades throughout the district and hasn't heard anything from constituents about Maher's vow to unseat him.

"Not one person came up to him and brought up either Flip-a-District or Bill Maher," Young said. "So from what we're hearing, it's certainly not on their minds."

Young points to Kline's record of working across the aisle on education and worker training policy and his work on behalf of Minnesota veterans as reasons why Kline has been re-elected five times.

Still, Maher might be onto something.

Redistricting in 2012 added lots of Democratic voters to what had been a solidly conservative 2nd District.

Two years ago, the district's voters narrowly picked President Barack Obama over Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney even as they sent Kline back to Washington.

Moreover, Kline is 67 and his term as chairman of the House Education Committee ends in 2016. He's not likely to be in line for another leadership position.

Schier said Democrats could flip the district -- just not this year.

"When he retires I think all bets are off and it could be a very competitive district," Schier said.

Until then, district residents will at least get a free comedy show out of Maher's involvement.

Video: Bill Maher's "Flip a District" winner