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New poll: Minnesota AG race close as Ellison abuse accusation lingers

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Ellison holds a small lead in the race for Attorney General
Ellison holds a small lead in the race for Attorney General according to the latest MPR News | Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.
William Lager | MPR News

Dogged by a recent allegation of domestic abuse, Democrat Keith Ellison has a narrow, five-point lead over Republican candidate Doug Wardlow in the race to be Minnesota's next attorney general, according to an MPR News/Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.

        Of 800 likely and registered voters across the state, 41 percent said they support Ellison and 36 percent said they favor Wardlow for attorney general. 

But 18 percent polled said they are still undecided on who they will vote for. With fewer than two months to go until the Nov. 6 election, the race could swing either way.

        After 11 years in Congress representing Minnesota's 5th District, Ellison enjoys significantly more name recognition than Wardlow, who served just one term representing Eagan in the Minnesota House. Only 20 percent of those polled said they didn't recognize Ellison's name compared to 69 percent who didn't recognize Wardlow's.

Doug Wardlow talking to a supporter.
Doug Wardlow talking to a supporter at the Minnesota State Fair on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

But many voters don't know yet how they feel about the recent allegation from Karen Monahan, Ellison's ex-girlfriend, who accused Ellison of yelling profanities at her and dragging her off a bed during a dispute in 2015. Ellison denies the allegation.

  Asked about the allegation, 57 percent of those polled said they didn't know if they believed them, 21 percent said they did believe them and 22 percent said they did not. 

Ellison supporter Nancy Johnson of Lonsdale said she's not sure what to make of the accusation, but she's sticking with her candidate.

"I'm not so sure that it's any more than just a little push and a little shove," she said. "I could be wrong, but it's not going to change my vote."

Keith Ellison takes questions from reporters.
Keith Ellison takes questions from reporters while canvassing in north Minneapolis Friday Aug. 17.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Other Ellison supporters are not so sure.

"You know, I don't think everybody that is accused is guilty. But then again, I don't know," said Janet Olson, who lives in Fosston in northwestern Minnesota. "I don't know why somebody would say something if it isn't true, so I'm having trouble with that one."

Monahan's allegation hasn't necessarily hurt Ellison's favorability among women voters: 46 percent of women polled said they preferred him to Wardlow's 35 percent, but 21 percent of women are still undecided in the race. Wardlow has a 13-point advantage over Ellison's with male voters.

    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. Noah Johnson, the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis candidate, was included in the poll and earned 5 percent support from respondents.

        Current DFL Attorney General Lori Swanson mounted an unsuccessful primary bid for governorthis summer, leaving her office wide open. That set off a scramble of people filing to run for the seat, including Ellison and four other Democrats. Ellison handily prevailed in the primary election, despite Monahan going public just days before the election.

Republicans have struggled to appeal to voters in past elections for attorney general. Attorney General Douglas Head was the last Republican to serve in the office and left in January of 1971. 

But questions about Ellison's private life have overshadowed other issues in the campaign and put Wardlow in a position to be Minnesota's first Republican attorney general in nearly 50 years.

        Wardlow has made Monahan's accusation against Ellison a campaign issue, and both campaigns are attacking the other as too extreme in their political beliefs. Ellison is highlighting Wardlow's past work for the Alliance for Defending Freedom, which he said defends laws that allow businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

        Christine Hubel of Burnsville said she doesn't know a lot about Wardlow, but she plans to vote for him. "I feel like supporting a conservative candidate right now is a good idea," she said.

Hubel also said she is troubled by the domestic abuse accusation against Ellison. "I think that when a candidate has raised such high concerns from accusations like that that people should be very, very cautious about supporting them, putting them into office," she added.

        The attorney general is the top attorney for the state, enforcing state laws and defending state agencies in the courts, as well as representing regular Minnesotans in cases of their choosing. The job has become more high profile in recent years, with state attorneys general banding together to sue the federal government to block policies from the president.

Ellison has a strong base of support among young voters in the metro area. He outperforms Wardlow in the state's two most populous counties, Hennepin and Ramsey, 52 to 29 percent. But he's dead even or performs below Wardlow in every other part of the state. 

He also has a striking 62 percent lead with voters between 18 and 34 to Wardlow's 16 percent, but he performs under Wardlow in every other voting-age group.

Of those polled, nearly a third said they recognize Ellison's name and have unfavorable opinion of him, while just 5 percent said the same about Wardlow. Ellison has taken on high-profile positions nationally, including deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee.

"I just have never liked him," Douglas Anderson, who lives in Austin in southern Minnesota, said of Ellison.

        But Marcia Mans of Minneapolis is part of the 20 percent of respondents who said they view Ellison favorably. She likes what he's done as her congressman, and she plans to back him for attorney general.

        "I would vote for Keith Ellison just because he was a such a good representative for our district here where I live now," she said. "I was very sorry he wasn't running again. So, I just said I'm going to vote for him for whatever he wants."