Jason Lewis' radio career under microscope in race for Minnesota seat

Jason Lewis addressing the GOP state convention.
Jason Lewis addressing the 2016 Republican State Convention on May 21, 2016, in Duluth, Minn.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News File

Jason Lewis is making the work of opposition researchers irrelevant for one of the nation's most contested congressional races.

Operatives don't need to dig up dirt on him: The once-nationally syndicated conservative talk show host called young women "non-thinking" for their passion for contraceptive and abortion access and seemed to question in a book of his whether it was the government's role to ban slavery.

Those snippets, plus dozens more from a long radio career that included stints filling in for Rush Limbaugh, are shaping the Republican's race against Democrat Angie Craig for a rare, open House seat in the tight southern Minnesota swing district.

"Jason Lewis's greatest advantage is also his biggest challenge," said Brian McClung, a former Republican political staffer who lives in the district. "When you're on talk radio for 20 years, the opposition research is already done."

A lightning-fast talker who often uses turns of phrase, Lewis sees himself as more of an academic than an ideologue. He is betting voters will, too, rather than as the inflammatory personality that Democrats are trying to portray.

He stands by all he said during his radio career, which he quit in 2014, though he acknowledged he may have been too provocative at times.

"I think anybody that's listened to Jason Lewis knows that I have given great thought into the positions I've taken. I've not come at these things in a capricious way," said Lewis, who believes his remarks have been taken out of context or blown out of proportion to score political points.

Lewis survived a four-way GOP primary to replace retiring GOP Rep. John Kline in Minnesota's 2nd District, which stretches from liberal suburbs of St. Paul to conservative rural towns and farming communities.

It's regarded as a toss-up: Voters sent Kline to Congress for eight terms, but broke for President Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012.

Craig, a former human resources executive for a medical technology company, is quick to contrast her private business experience with Lewis' lifetime "on right-wing radio talking at people."

Democratic organizations have reserved millions of dollars in airtime, waiting to rebroadcast his most controversial comments in what are slim hopes of retaking the House majority this fall.

Among them is a 2012 episode of Lewis' show in which he criticized a "vast majority of young single women who couldn't explain to you what GDP means," calling them ignorant for placing greater importance on abortion rights, contraceptive access and gay marriage.

Lewis defended his remarks, saying he was only calling women ignorant of GOP values while expressing his belief that the government should protect corporations and religious beliefs when it comes to health care.

He also stands by a passage in his 2011 book, "Power Divided is Power Checked," where he wrote: "If you don't want to own a slave, don't. But don't tell other people they can't." Lewis called that an obviously sarcastic statement meant to highlight his belief that states, not the federal government, should carry the burden for passing laws.

Sasha Haworth, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Lewis is "going to be forced to defend every sexist, racist, misogynistic and outrageous comment he's ever made."

But Lewis is ready; he faced the same from opponents who argued he was unelectable during the primary campaign.

"There's already chronic fatigue on that stuff," he said. "I think having it get out early ... probably helps."

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