In Minnesota’s 3rd District, an open-seat opportunity isn’t high on national watch list

People stand at voting booths
U.S. Rep Dean Phillips is not seeking reelection in November. The race to replace him in Minnesota's 3rd District is off to a relatively quiet start.
Ben Hovland | MPR News 2023

When Democrat Dean Phillips toppled a five-term Republican incumbent in Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District in 2018, it was one of the nation’s hottest House races and it attracted $23 million in total spending.

The lawmaker who Phillips defeated, Rep. Erik Paulsen, got there a decade earlier in another heated and expensive open-seat race. 

As Phillips prepares to move on — he’s running for president rather than reelection — the race to replace him is off to a relatively quiet start. That’s notable because the lack of an incumbent offers a relatively rare opportunity for an opposing party to flip a district like this.

Five Republicans have stepped up to run, but none currently hold elective office or have broad public recognition. There’s one Democratic candidate actively campaigning to keep the seat in that party’s hands, state Sen. Kelly Morrison.

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DFL State Sen. Kelly Morrison is promising to work across party lines if she's elected to Congress. "People are sick of the infighting," Morrison said.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Nathan Gonzales, the editor and publisher of the national political analysis site Inside Elections, said Minnesota’s 3rd District so far hasn’t made the list of competitive seats nationwide that groups tracking the national picture are keeping close tabs on.

“When we meet with party strategists on both sides of the aisle, the 3rd District isn’t a part of that conversation,” he said. “And that’s a contrast to not that long ago when the 3rd District was at the center of those conversations.”

For decades, voters in the suburban district sent Republicans to Washington — starting in the 1960s and including party stalwarts like Bill Frenzel and Jim Ramstad. They were in a moderate mold.

Phillips flipped it during the first mid-term election of Donald Trump’s presidency and the district has only gone more in Democrats’ favor since. 

“The 3rd District is a great example of a type of seat that has fled from the Republican Party under Donald Trump. It’s a suburban district with a highly educated population that is affluent and those are the types of indicators that we look at in districts that are voting more Democratic rather than Republican,” Gonzales said.

Morrison is framing her campaign in that vein. She said she has demonstrated in the Legislature that she can work across party lines and is pledging to do the same in Washington. 

“We need more cooperation in our politics,” she said. “I think Minnesotans and Americans are sick of politicians trying to score political points rather than getting the job done.”

Morrison is a physician who talks about abortion access and women’s reproductive health choices as part of her campaign. 

“I think I bring a unique skill set to this job,” she said. “And I think that at this moment in history, it’s important that we have the voice and expertise of a pro-choice OB-GYN in Congress.”

Morrison became the sole DFL candidate in the race when Ron Harris dropped out earlier this week. She has raised more than $400,000 for her campaign. 

None of her Republican challengers have reported fundraising totals to date.

In the GOP field are Brad Kohler, Jamie Page, Blaize Harty, Tad Jude and Quentin Wittrock. 

Jude stands out among the GOP contenders as having the most political experience. Jude served in both houses of the Minnesota Legislature and was a county commissioner and a judge. He won election to the Minnesota House more than 50 years ago running as a Hubert Humphrey-inspired Democrat.

“He (Humphrey) had a real good connection with working men and women and mainstream Minnesotans,” Jude said in an interview last week. “And I would like to emulate that type of connection with mainstream Minnesotans.”

After switching to the GOP, he ran twice unsuccessfully for Congress in the 1990s. He opposes legal abortion and says he would work with others to reach consensus on abortion limits. 

Jude says he’ll focus on economic issues, border security and public safety — consistent with broader GOP messaging this year.

a man with glasses smiles
Former state representative, state senator, judge and county commissioner Tad Jude says he'll be talking a lot about public safety as he campaigns in the 3rd District.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

“We need to make sure that people feel safe going to the grocery store, they feel safe going to the park, they feel safe going to the school,” he said. 

Harty, who has run small businesses, is drawing on similar themes. He said in a message to GOP voters ahead of this week’s precinct caucuses that they should “expect results, not excuses, which is all we get from Congress these days.”

Page owns a technology consulting company and emphasizes faith as a driving factor for him.

“God put us here together today. This is our time. This is our watch,” Page says on his campaign website. “When I see the direction of our great country and see where we are headed, I don’t like it. And I can’t sit around and watch our great country deteriorate.”

Kohler ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 2022. He’s a former UFC and mixed martial arts fighter who later got into the boxing products business. It fits closely with his campaign slogan “the courage to fight.”

Wittrock is a retired business attorney who has said he is trying to appeal to centrist voters. In a rarity for today’s Republican candidates, Wittrock openly says he never voted for Donald Trump. 

"I disagreed with his morals and his way of acting, although I didn’t dispute many of his policies and many of the good things that happened in the country while he was in the White House,” Wittrock said when he got into the race in January.

The endorsement race for Republicans culminates at a district convention in late April. A possible primary would fall in August.