Rep. Atkins skips run for congressional seat

Rep. Joe Atkins
Rep. Joe Atkins
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2012

Updated: 3 p.m. | Posted: 2:04 p.m.

Veteran Minnesota state Rep. Joe Atkins is passing on a run for Congress.

The seven-term Democrat said Thursday he wouldn't seek the suburban seat being vacated by Republican Rep. John Kline. Atkins says he's looking at running for a different office in the future, but declined to say which.

He says he believes he can accomplish more in the Legislature than he could in a hyper-partisan Congress.

Despite a flurry of interest soon after Kline announced his planned retirement, there have been few entrants into the 2nd Congressional District race. The district runs from south of St. Paul to towns hugging the Mississippi River.

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Angie Craig
Democrat Angie Craig, photographed Monday, Apr. 6, 2015 at MPR in St. Paul, will challenge U.S. Congressman John Kline in the 2nd district.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News file

"We have two great candidates running for Congress right now, and I look forward to watching them and seeing how they interact with folks in the 2nd. They really are phenomenal," Atkins said.

Those two Democratic candidates are Angie Craig and Mary Lawrence.

Craig, who announced her candidacy six months ago, sees a big opportunity for a DFL win. The Eagan resident said that's also how she felt when the target was a seven-term Republican incumbent, and her game plan remains the same.

"For me, this is about continuing to sit person-by-person and group-by-group to earn the endorsement of the party," Craig said. "And then we'll see what's on the other side of that."

Recent election results in the 2nd District are helping to fuel Democrats' optimism for 2016. President Obama narrowly won there in 2012 and U.S. Senator Al Franken did the same in 2014.

Craig has already picked up several endorsements. Last week, she gained the backing of WomenWinning, a group that helps female candidates who support legal abortion.

Craig said she's not spending much time thinking about other Democrats who might join the race.

"It's a lot more glamorous to think about running for Congress than to do the everyday work of running for Congress," Craig said.

Craig is an executive with the health care company St. Jude Medical. The first-time candidate stresses her business experience, as well as her humble roots growing up in an Arkansas trailer park. Craig said her run for Congress is based on helping others achieve the American dream.

"I think it's a really big deal that we have policy makers that are working on behalf of working families."

Dr. Mary Lawrence
Dr. Mary Lawrence, a first-time candidate, describes herself as a moderate Democrat, willing to work across the political aisle.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Craig's DFL rival Mary Lawrence is an ophthalmologist who lives near Prior Lake and recently held a leadership position in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Lawrence said she was pleased with Kline's announcement, but she also downplayed the need for campaign adjustments.

"We are just following our strategy, and we'll be able to take our message that we will be able to, I think, better serve the people of the 2nd Congressional District better than Congressman Kline did," Lawrence said.

Both candidates are seeking the DFL endorsement, but only Craig is pledging to drop out if she doesn't get it. Lawrence, who is also a first-time candidate, said it's too early to make that commitment. She used a medical analogy to explain her reasoning.

"If my goal, along with the patient, is to stop pain, I will not say necessarily that I will use this drug or will use this drug or will go to surgery or use laser," Lawrence said. "We'll take it one step at a time and do what is the right thing."

Lawrence's campaign website doesn't mention party affiliation. Still, she describes herself as a moderate Democrat, with progressive values and a willingness to compromise.

"I think that the hyper-partisanship in Congress right now is dysfunctional, and that if we can have somebody who can actually work across the aisle and do the right thing for the American people, for the people of the 2nd District, we'll be better off," Lawrence said.

New quarterly campaign fundraising reports come out later this month. Back in July, the numbers showed Lawrence had put a significant amount of her own money into the campaign through an $800,000 loan.

Craig, who raised $327,000 in the second quarter, said money should not be a problem in a race expected to get lots of national interest.

The Republican field also has two announced candidates. Former state Senator John Howe entered the race last week. He joined tea party favorite David Gerson, who was already preparing to challenge Kline for the GOP endorsement.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.