Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith are poised to hold on to both of Minnesota's U.S. Senate seats this fall, although Smith is facing a closer race in a special election where neither nominee is well known to voters.
Smith leads Republican nominee Karin Housley 44 to 37 percent in the race for her seat in the Senate, according to the MPR News/Star Tribune Minnesota Poll of 800 registered and likely voters. Of those polled, though, 15 percent said they are still undecided and 4 percent said they plan to vote for another candidate.
Smith's race is much closer than the challenge facing Klobuchar, who leads her Republican opponent Jim Newberger 60 percent to 30 percent, according to the poll. Only 6 percent of voters are undecided in that race, with 4 percent planning to vote for another candidate.
Part of the suspense around the Smith race is that it was never supposed to be on the ballot.
Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Smith to the seat in January, after U.S. Sen. Al Franken unexpectedly resigned over mounting allegations of groping and sexual harassment and pressure from his colleagues to step down.
State law required a special election for the seat to coincide with the next general election.
Smith, the state's lieutenant governor at the time, was thrust into her new role in Washington, D.C., and a statewide election with national implications.
It's the first time since 1978 that both Minnesota senate seats are on the ballot at the same time.
Health care on their minds
The poll, conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy from Sept. 10 to Sept. 12 has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, meaning that there is a 95 percent probability that the "true" figure would fall within that range if all adults were surveyed.
While the outcome on Nov. 6 isn't known, those who responded to the poll made it clear what they wanted to hear from the candidates — 30 percent of those polled said health care was their top concern in the race.
That includes Darrell Paulsen, a Maplewood man who lives with a disability. He said he's met with Smith numerous times when she was lieutenant governor and he supports her in the race for the U.S. Senate.
Smith "will take the time and invest the real opportunities that Minnesotans care about," he said.
Warren Poole, a 67-year-old retiree who lives in St. Paul, told pollsters he's voting for Housley, though he doesn't know that much about her.
Poole said his top concern is the economy, a priority he shares with 21 percent of Housley supporters polled.
"I think it's doing quite well and if the economy's doing well, everyone does well," he said.
The fact that Housley is a Republican is good enough for him, Poole added. "The more Republicans we have, the safer the conservative viewpoint is."
What's your name?
Housley and Smith have a long way to go in getting their names out there before Election Day. Sarah Wellington, the Legal Marijuana Now candidate, and Jerry Trooien, who is running unaffiliated with a party, are also on the ballot for the seat and were included in the poll.
Of those polled, 26 percent didn't recognize Smith's name, and 47 percent were not familiar with Housley, a two-term state senator from Washington County.
Those who recognized the candidates viewed Smith more favorably, 32 percent to Housley's 18 percent. But she was more polarizing: 19 percent of respondents also viewed Smith unfavorably, while only 8 percent of those polled viewed Housley unfavorably.
Klobuchar does not have a name recognition problem. Fifty-six percent of those polled recognized her name and viewed her favorably, whereas only 7 percent could say the same about her opponent, Newberger, a Republican state representative from Becker.
Paula Overby, a Green Party candidate, and Dennis Schuller, who is running under the Legal Marijuana Now banner, are also on the ballot and were included in the poll.
Klobuchar, who is widely viewed as a potential presidential candidate in 2020, easily won her first re-election campaign in 2012, trouncing her GOP opponent Kurt Bills by almost 35 percentage points.
Poll respondent Kathy Tveit, a retired high school social studies teacher who lives in Coon Rapids, said she will be happy to cast a ballot for Klobuchar. She wishes more politicians were more like Minnesota's senior senator.
"She's very forthright. I've watched a number of interviews," Tveit said. "She also works with a coalition of people who are able to pass laws and the coalition is made up with people from both parties."
Adam Hokens, 45, said he's going to vote for Newberger on Nov. 6. While the Plymouth man is concerned about illegal immigration, government spending and the national debt top his list of worries.
He said he likes a lot of what President Trump is doing but he hopes Newberger could serve as a fiscal check on the president.
"The one thing he did say is he's concerned about government spending. Nobody seems to be concerned about that now," Hokens said. "I guess that's a big thing that I don't like about Trump is that I think he's spending more than anybody or at least as much as anybody."
Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections, a firm that provides nonpartisan analysis of local and national campaigns, said he's not surprised polls show Klobuchar and Smith in the lead, despite the fact Trump almost won Minnesota two years ago.
Being on the same ballot with Klobuchar is likely to help Smith in November and diminish Republican chances of picking up the former Franken seat, he said, adding, "Minnesota is still a Democrat-leaning or DFL-leaning state."
Correction (Sept.17, 2018): An earlier version of this story listed Kathy Tveit's city of residence incorrectly. The story has been updated.