By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 20, 2008
MINNETONKA, Minn. -- On paper, it makes little sense that Democrat Ashwin Madia is running a close race for Congress in the Minneapolis suburbs. He is a 30-year-old political neophyte challenging a respected Republican statehouse leader for an open seat held by the GOP since 1960.
But Madia is an Iraq war veteran who has turned a combination of economic worry and demographic change into a serious chance of beating state Rep. Erik Paulsen in a closely watched bellwether for Democratic hopes of extending their reach in the suburbs.
Recent polling shows Madia slightly ahead, a reversal of Paulsen's own slim lead a month ago. A lead in a district long considered safe GOP territory typifies a year that looks increasingly likely to turn out big for Democrats in Congress.
Democrats have largely won in the inner suburbs like this one in recent years. They hope a favorable climate -- especially in districts where economic concerns and dissatisfaction with President Bush dominate -- will help them extend that success to outer suburbs, where they have also become more competitive.
Outer-suburban communities "may still be Republican, but some of them are much less Republican than they were, and some of them are outright Democratic," said Ruy Teixeira, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution who recently finished a study of battleground states. "These are the kinds of patterns you see all over."
Teixeira cited the Virginia suburbs, where the rise of Democrats in Fairfax County is finding an echo in Loudoun and Prince William counties. He also mentioned Arapahoe and Jefferson counties outside Denver, as well as Franklin County, Ohio, which includes Columbus.
As the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee studied the national map heading into the 2008 campaign cycle, strategists looked to shifts in 2006, where Democrats took nine largely suburban seats from Republicans -- including three near Philadelphia -- and two that combined urban and suburban populations.
This year, the DCCC is concentrating on 10 suburban districts around the country, including Minnesota's 3rd, as well as eight where the suburbs or exurbs are a central part of the mix. Party strategists said the country's economic crisis has shifted the electorate their way.
"We're seeing in the last three or four weeks a lot of these districts are becoming increasingly competitive," said a DCCC staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly, "whereas on the Democratic side, where races have been competitive, they've been competitive throughout."
National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain would not discuss the wider trends. Asked for comment yesterday, he said, "Suburban voters will trend toward candidates that offer up real economic solutions, not more of the same failed tax-and-spend policies of the past."
The Paulsen-Madia race will determine who replaces Rep. Jim Ramstad, a moderate nine-term Republican. Paulsen seemed well-positioned with money and contacts -- Ramstad is his campaign chairman. A social conservative and a pragmatic, budget-balancing former Minnesota House majority leader, he is an understated business analyst at Minnesota-based Target Corp.
On the stump, Paulsen, 43, talks about his 14 years in the Minnesota legislature. He discusses his real-world professional career and the 11 countries he visited last year. He mentions his four daughters and his Sunday-morning soccer matches in the local Liberian community.
Madia's introductory campaign literature offers a more modest history: He was born in Boston. He grew up in Plymouth, Minn., and graduated from high school and college nearby. He served as a Marine lawyer in Iraq. He is a now a civil lawyer specializing in "business matters" and intellectual property.
But while that disparity in credentials may normally favor Paulsen, it is helping Madia in a climate in which voters appear to be hungry for something, anything, different.
"Here's a guy who has no government experience," University of Minnesota political scientist Lawrence Jacobs said of Madia. "He literally points to being involved in university student government."
Jacobs described Paulsen as thoughtful and "mature" with a solid record in office, yet what should be assets are turning into liabilities, as "experience becomes a warning sign of 'the same old thing.' People are radically discounting the risk of newcomers. It's like the gravitational pull is being reversed."
If Madia and Paulsen were competing without intense worries about the economy and the direction of the country, political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said, the result would be predictable: "Paulsen wins." Yet he just moved the race into a group of contests tilting Democratic.
Rothenberg sees "greater receptivity" in suburbia to a Democratic message that is "more cautious," with its emphasis on fiscal responsibility, middle-class tax cuts and help for small business.
"When we get to a more neutral environment and we see what the Democratic message is," Rothenberg said, "we will know whether these are real changes or temporary changes."
Madia relied on volunteers to defeat the favorite in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party nominating convention. When he then showed he could run strongly against Paulsen in a state that moved strongly toward Obama, money poured in.
"No one had ever heard of me before. We did it from the bottom up," Madia said during a late-afternoon break at a Caribou coffee shop, where he looked in desperate need of caffeine but drank nothing.
All but erasing Paulsen's financial advantage, Madia raised nearly $1 million in the third quarter, pushing him above $2 million for the campaign. At last report, the DCCC had committed more than $1.5 million more for television.
"I know if it is a one-on-one fight, I win, no problem," Paulsen said after speaking to the Optimist Club. Almost all of his money has come from Minnesota donors.
When he meets voters, Madia wears a U.S. flag pin on his lapel, just above a Marine Corps pin. At a gathering of 20 elderly voters in a senior center, he mentioned Iraq only after discussing the economy, health care and energy policy.
The war was at the top of voters' concerns in 2006, when the Bush administration's struggles in Iraq were a central factor in Democrats retaking the House and Senate. And when Madia began his race, it was largely on the merits of his war service. But Iraq has virtually disappeared because of the economic crisis.
As recently as a year ago in Washington Post-ABC News polling, twice as many voters said Iraq was their top concern as said so about the economy. But as violence in Iraq eased and news about the U.S. economy darkened, the public's focus shifted. Now, more than half of all voters, 53 percent, call the economy issue No. 1, and only 6 percent highlight the Iraq war as their top voting issue.
"Iraq," said Jacobs, from the University of Minnesota, "has been incinerated as a political issue by the financial 9/11."