Facing uncertain voters, Keith Ellison seeks a reset

Keith Ellison stood in front of reporters this week desperate to redefine the attorney general's race as his poll numbers slide.

The Democratic congressman's campaign has been overshadowed for the two months since his ex-girlfriend accused him of physical and emotional abuse. Ellison has denied the allegations, but the damage was done. Once leading Republican opponent Doug Wardlow in polls, Ellison trails by 7 percentage points in the most recent Minneapolis Star Tribune/MPR News survey.

Still, Ellison has hope: the same poll shows 16 percent of voters say they're not sure who they'll choose. So there he was Thursday in the basement conference room at the state Capitol, imploring voters to examine Wardlow's record instead of his own troubles.

"On Nov. 7, I don’t want people to wake up to the reality of Doug Wardlow," Ellison said. "They need to wake up to it now, what he stands for now."

Wardlow's past is not without controversy. During a private fundraiser, he said he would fire 42 DFL lawyers in the attorney general's office and replace them with Republican attorneys. He has vowed to advance policies that will "make Minnesota more red" and his campaign literature says he will "defend President Trump's agenda in court."

Wardlow also worked as a staff attorney at the Alliance for Defending Freedom, an organization that the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center calls a hate group.

In 2016, Wardlow defended a Michigan funeral home owner who fired an employee who was transitioning from a man to a woman. The employee planned to wear women's clothes at work, and Wardlow argued it would've gone against the business owner's religious beliefs.

The Trump administration is advancing Wardlow's case, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to decide it.

Wardlow's campaign did not make him available to answer questions about the ADF. Wardlow's campaign manager said Ellison was trying to shift focus off the abuse allegations and his liberal record.

"Another day, another baseless and desperate attack from a failing campaign," said Billy Grant, the campaign manager. "Doug Wardlow is committed to defending and protecting all Minnesotans."

Wardlow, a former one-term state lawmaker, led the Star Tribune/MPR poll, 43-36. Ellison had a 5 percentage point lead in September.

Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, said undecided voters are likely left with several questions because of how the race has played out.

"That tells me that questions surrounding the (abuse) allegations are in voters’ minds," Pearson said. "Do we believe Monahan, or do we believe Ellison? And then the other dynamic is that Congressman Ellison is indeed very well known, but Rep. Wardlow is not."

Ellison is the only DFL candidate running for statewide office who is trailing in polls. Asked by Fox 9 if he owed voters more of an explanation about the Monahan allegations, Ellison said he would focus on other issues in the race.

"I need to talk about equality and justice," he said. "I think the only poll that matters is going to be on Nov. 6. I think we’re going to work 24 hours a day to clarify the issues in this race."

The race isn't over, Pearson said.

"The question is, of that 16 percent (undecided), how many are Democrats who will come home by Election Day, and how many are independent-leaning voters who may decide to vote for Wardlow or may decide to leave their ballot blank?" she said.