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GOP battle to replace retiring Rep. Kline in full swing

ST. PAUL--When the race kicked off in May, Jason Lewis had a huge lead to be the Republican candidate in Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District. After months of increasingly sharp campaigning, is he still ahead? Voters will choose Tuesday among L...

ST. PAUL-When the race kicked off in May, Jason Lewis had a huge lead to be the Republican candidate in Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District.

After months of increasingly sharp campaigning, is he still ahead?

Voters will choose Tuesday among Lewis, businesswoman Darlene Miller, former state lawmaker John Howe and little-known newcomer Matt Erickson. The winner becomes the Republican nominee for the general election against Democrat Angie Craig and Independence Party candidate Paula Overby.

Lewis began with the advantage. He's well-known from his years as a talk-radio host, won the support of the Republican Party apparatus at a May convention and also has backing from a wide range of legislators and other prominent Republicans.

But Miller has the endorsement of Rep. John Kline, the popular Republican congressman whose retirement opened up the 2nd District seat, which covers the southern metro area and stretches southeast to Red Wing. And Howe in the past month has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association and the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune.

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None of the candidates has raised much money, but Miller has a modest financial advantage. And over the past few weeks, she's used it, bombarding 2nd District Republicans with glossy postcards attacking Lewis for his temperament and policies.

Observers say it's clear Miller's attacks are hurting Lewis - but not whether the attacks will be enough to cost Lewis the race.

"They are having an impact," said Erik Radtke, a 2nd District Republican activist. "Negative attacks, for as much as nobody likes them, they're extremely effective."

Public debate in the race has largely focused on two issues: foreign policy and which candidate is best suited to beat Craig in November.

Lewis splits focus

With his own polling showing him up big at the start of the race, Lewis has been conserving his money for the general election.

"We're keeping our powder dry," Lewis said. "The challenge for the Lewis campaign is Angie Craig."

That's not to say Lewis is ignoring the primary. He's been focusing on person-

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to-person campaigning instead of paid advertising. Meanwhile, the state Republican Party, whose endorsement Lewis won, has blasted Miller in emails to voters.

"Lewis has been, shall we say, resting on his assets a bit?" said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College. "That behavior suggests a lot of confidence in the primary outcome."

Confident or not, Lewis said last week that he'd launch his first TV ad in the final days of the campaign. And observers said Lewis' endorsement from the Republican Party means a lot to many party activists in the district.

Republican mailboxes in the 2nd District have been full over the past month with what Radtke called "dark and aggressive" postcards attacking Lewis - postcards featuring mushroom clouds, heroin users shooting up and other attention-getting images and words.

Miller has also sent out positive messages touting her experience as a small-business owner and a TV ad featuring Kline's endorsement.

Miller argued that Kline's support would have a much bigger impact on voters than Lewis' backing from the Republican Party.

"The party brand just isn't that strong," Miller said. "John Kline, his name

recognition, people pleased with his service to the country when he was a Marine and as a congressman, is so much more well-known than the endorsement from the state party."

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The big question: Will Miller get enough of her own supporters out to the polls for a low-turnout election?

"Darlene Miller's challenge is whether or not she'll be able to get people that are inclined to like her to turn out," Radtke said, arguing that Miller's base of support may not be regular voters in GOP primaries.

Howe hangs in

The third candidate, Howe, has taken a low-key approach to the primary. Though he's loaned his campaign more than $500,000 of his own money, Howe says he'll spend most of that money only if he wins the primary and makes it to the general election.

Since Howe has also stopped fundraising from donors, that means he's avoided the expensive

postcard and TV campaign Miller has used in hopes of closing the gap with Lewis.

Instead, he's betting on a bank-shot approach: that voters will be swayed by his experience in the Legislature, endorsements and perhaps a last-minute advertising flurry to pick the dark-horse candidate.

"I have a chance," Howe said. "I feel good about things coming to me."

Though most outside observers think a Howe

victory is unlikely, they say he could affect the race even if he falls short. He's believed to be stronger in the less-populated rural parts of the district and could draw support away from the other candidates.

Winner might not need majority

With four candidates on the ballot, turnout could be key - especially with few voters expected to show up. In 2012, fewer than 20,000 2nd District voters came to the polls for a primary between Kline and a challenger. That's less than

5 percent of the total registered voters in the district.

The fourth candidate, Erickson, has raised and spent little money on his race, but could still draw a portion of the small number of voters away from the other candidates.

Under Minnesota law, the candidate with the most votes wins the Republican nomination - even if he or she falls below 50 percent of the vote.

There has been no public polling in the 2nd District race.

"I'd have to call it a tossup," Radtke said. "I still think Jason Lewis has an edge. ... But each candidate has done well for themselves."

Related Topics: ELECTION 2016
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