It’s September, so here come the biting political ads

Posted 2:45 p.m. | Updated 8:45 p.m.

Fall is in the air, and so are the negative political ads.

The television ad tone has shifted in some of Minnesota's most competitive races with the lazy days of summer now gone.

Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen unloaded Wednesday on Democratic challenger Dean Phillips. The west suburban race is viewed as a toss-up, where past voter loyalty to the five-term Paulsen is colliding with the district's broader electoral trends that give Democrats hope of flipping the seat

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Paulsen's new ad goes hard at Phillips, an entrepreneur, for failing to provide health insurance to employees at his coffee shop while calling health care a "moral right" in his campaign. The ad labels him "Dishonest Dean Phillips" and "another shady businessman who would make things worse." It also said he was tardy on his business taxes.

Phillips, a first-time candidate, wasted no time criticizing Paulsen over the ad, which mirrors one from an outside Republican-aligned group that also began airing this week.

"We knew it was coming, and here it is," Phillips said in a video posted on social media. "Millions of dollars in smear ads from Erik Paulsen and his outside special interest funders."

In a point-by-point rebuttal to the ads, the Phillips campaign said the coffee shop's employees were paid a $15 hourly wage in the coffee shop's early days but no health coverage. Later, Phillips and his business partner said they added it as a benefit for its full-time workers. Paulsen's campaign argues that Phillips hasn't been fully transparent on whether he began providing health coverage before becoming a political candidate or after.

The Phillips campaign said Paulsen is the one with a poor record on health care, citing his repeated votes to undo the federal Affordable Care Act that could make it difficult for people with past serious illnesses to obtain, keep or afford coverage.

The Paulsen ad's claim on taxes relates to Phillips' past ownership of Talenti Gelato and tax payments due at a Cobb County, Georgia property. County receipts show that taxes on the company's parcels were paid weeks or months late on two occasions.

Phillips' campaign doesn't deny the payments were late, but said they were "paid so close to their due date that the total interest charge was a measly $89."

The Minnesota governor's race, where DFLer Tim Walz and Republican Jeff Johnson have gotten off to a polite start, also saw its first injection of television ad negativity.

The Democratic-aligned Alliance for a Better Minnesota went up with an ad describing Johnson as a threat on health care. The ad says Johnson's approach to health care could cost some people their coverage or allow insurers to deny them policies.

The group behind the ad, which previously ran attack ads against Republican Tim Pawlenty during the GOP primary, bases its claim on a commentary Johnson wrote in 2014 in which he said he would seek a federal waiver allowing Minnesota out of the Affordable Care Act, known also as Obamacare. Johnson was running as the Republican nominee for governor then, too, but lost to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

Messages left with Johnson's campaign about the ad were not immediately returned.

In a statement released late Wednesday, Johnson called the claims "blatant lies" and said the ad was a dishonest portrayal on an important issue.

"I've been consistently clear that Minnesota will always cover those with pre-existing conditions, just as we have for decades," Johnson wrote. "Unlike my opponent though, I actually believe we should foster more competition and choice for those who pay for their own insurance to bring down the ridiculous premium hikes we've seen under MNsure."