GOP's Housley, Lewis weigh 2020 U.S. Senate race in Minnesota

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Former U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis and state Sen. Karin Housley say they’re not scared off from making 2020 U.S. Senate bids by the prospect of having to face each other in a Republican primary, before taking on Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith in the general election.

Housley, of St. Marys Point, is serving her second term in the Minnesota Senate after losing to Smith last year. This month, she expressed interest in a rematch and said she would make her decision by the end of June.

Lewis, who had one term in Congress before losing a 2018 re-election bid to Democratic U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, said he was considering whether to make another run against Craig or a bid for U.S. Senate. He said he would decide by fall.

“It probably makes the most sense for Republicans to let them go at it, let Republican primary voters decide, and decide who can win statewide against Tina Smith,” said Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political science professor.

Smith defeated Housley, 54-43, in November after a shortened campaign in the wake of former U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s resignation amid sexual harassment allegations. Housley, now better known after one statewide run, may decide 2020 will be different, Jacobs said.

Housley scored a victory in the state legislative session, getting a package of tougher standards on assisted-living facilities passed and signed into law. For weeks, her campaign website has simply read, “Stay tuned.” 

“I really feel we need a strong voice for Minnesota, somebody who can get something done,” Housley said in an interview. “I would do what’s best for the state of Minnesota and what’s best for me. No matter who runs (in the primary), that’s fine – I would still keep my eye on the ball, and that’s winning the U.S. Senate seat.”

Lewis, in an interview after speaking to Republican party officials and activists in downtown Minneapolis this week, said he was aligning himself with President Donald Trump. The GOP needs a Senate candidate who can tap into the president’s base, he said.

“They’re not political animals, to the point where they vote in midterms or go to caucuses or things like that, but they will come out for the president,” Lewis said. “So that’s why you’ve got to have someone at the top of the statewide ballot that can sync up the president’s efforts with theirs and tap into that.”

Lewis was among Republicans wiped out in suburban districts in 2018. Far from blaming the president, he said he was “in for a penny, in for a pound” with Trump.

The Minnesota DFL responded to both Housley and Lewis’s interest in the race by predicting that voters would not elect them in 2020.

“I'm confident the people of Minnesota will reject Housley again, especially since she just cast the deciding vote against a bill providing emergency insulin for Minnesotans in need,” said DFL Chairman Ken Martin in an email. As for Lewis’s time in Congress: “He gave tax breaks to billionaires and big businesses, all while voting against protections for people with pre-existing conditions.”

Smith’s campaign pointed to the senator’s work across the aisle on career and technical training, opioid addiction, and agriculture legislation. Some of those provisions became law within larger pieces of legislation, her campaign said.

Cook Political Report, an independent observer of political races, rates the Minnesota U.S. Senate race as “likely Democratic” and favoring Smith.

“Tina Smith has established herself in Washington, she has a win under her belt, but Republicans have every reason to believe she’s beatable,” Jacobs said. “She’s not an established, powerful politician in Minnesota at this point.”

Lewis, asked whether he was leaning toward a rematch in Minnesota’s second congressional district or a fresh U.S. Senate race, said there were reasons to consider both.

“Taking back the House is very important,” Lewis said, “but the Senate is the last firewall to freedom. It’s the place that you can have the most impact and do the most damage if you’re on the wrong side of history.”