'Cycle of the outsider' playing out in Lewis-Craig congressional race

When Democrats and Republicans picked their nominees to replace retiring GOP U.S. Rep. John Kline in Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District, they set up a campaign seldom seen in Minnesota — a pairing of candidates who have never held political office.

Neither Democrat Angie Craig nor Republican Jason Lewis has a voting record, so other aspects of their lives have been pushed to the fore. Democrats are criticizing Lewis for things he said as a talk radio host, and Republicans are zooming in on Craig's career as an executive at St. Jude Medical, emphasizing the unflattering headlines the medical device firm has faced.

Angie Craig
Minnesota 2nd district congressional candidate Angie Craig poses for a portrait inside Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul, Minn. on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Ostermeier, who writes the Smart Politics blog at the university's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, found only two similar instances after analyzing almost 300 Minnesota congressional races stretching back seven decades to when the DFL Party was formed. The first was DFLer Jim Oberstar in 1974 and the second was Republican Vin Weber in 1980. Both had been congressional staffers before running.

Jason Lewis
Republican Jason Lewis
Regina McCombs | MPR News

Craig, 44, is hammering Lewis in TV ads with strung-together clips of provocative radio show comments about slavery and women. The snippets are intended to frame him as too extreme for the district that stretches from the suburbs into farm country.

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Lewis, 61, said that voters in the district south of the Twin Cities should be able to see through deceptive editing in the ads.

"I've been in the business of give and take for 25 years," he said. "So it doesn't bother me that much and especially since we know they're so taken out of context and so distorted."

Lewis' path took him from the family auto parts business in Iowa to an ill-fated run for Congress in Colorado in 1990. He wound up on the radio and soon relocated to Minnesota, where he built a financially comfortable life through book royalties, consulting contracts and various business ventures.

Lewis flirted with other campaigns for public office but didn't step up until the incumbent Kline announced he would step down.

Lewis isn't running away from that radio career that gained him a conservative following and helped push him past a crowded Republican field. He said the professional pasts of both candidates should be under the microscope.

"Look, I think we ought to be vetting careers. It was my job to be provocative on the radio," Lewis said in an interview. "It was Angie Craig's job to look out after seniors, veterans and kids at her old company when she said she was leading from the boardroom and she didn't."

He's referring to various investigations, lawsuits and regulatory actions at Little Canada-based St. Jude Medical, where Craig was an executive before her run for office. They involved either patient safety or billing surrounding the company's medical devices. and Craig said it's a stretch to hold her personally to account for all of St. Jude's activities. "When my opponent talks about owning everything that happens at a Fortune 500 company with 18,000 employees in 100 countries I view that very, very much as an absolute desperate attack from the national Republican Party," she said.

Lewis said Craig can't hold up the positive aspects of her St. Jude experience — as she has in her initial ads without also taking ownership of the company's problems. "You can't have it both ways. You were either leading from the boardroom or you weren't," he said.

Political newcomers like Craig need to spend more time with the basic introduction. She's done that through a mix of biographical ads and public appearances, where she shares an up-from-the-bootstraps story and relates it to topics she's talking about in the campaign.

"I've just brought all of me to this race, so I've certainly been willing to talk about the fact that I grew up in a trailer park and that I too had to work two jobs and take out some student loans to go to college."

Out of college, Craig's first career stop was as a reporter at a Tennessee newspaper. In her mid-20s, she switched to public relations at a medical device company. She climbed the ranks into management. That eventually brought her to Minnesota and St. Jude, where she earned a half-million dollar or more salary in recent years and accumulated more than a million dollars in company stock options.

On the issues, the candidates are striking notes that mostly align with their prevailing party positions though both are telling voters they won't be shy about breaking from their party in Congress. Craig highlights proposals that aim to lower the cost of prescription drugs and college educations. She also promises to tackle the growing problem of painkiller addiction that has led to a spike in overdose deaths.

Lewis also brings up the opioid issue, saying he supports legislation to emphasize treatment over criminal punishment for addicts.

But he's more vocal on matters of government spending, which he wants to rein in, and national security that he says needs a tougher focus. Lewis said he favors a moratorium on refugees from "dangerous parts of the world" - criteria he hasn't put a precise definition on. He cities Syria as one case.

"I don't believe we should refuse refugees based on religion," Lewis said, departing from a policy articulated by Donald Trump atop the Republican ticket. "But we're going to certainly say this part of the world where we have a hotspot and the administration has admitted that ISIS has infiltrated the refugee community, we know that. Why would you take those folks in at this point?"

The pair will have a chance to air out those views when they meet for upcoming debates. Both campaigns expect to hold at least three prior to Election Day.