ST. PAUL, Minn. — It was Al Franken’s seat.
Karin Housley, a Republican, keeps bringing that up as she campaigns against Sen. Tina Smith (D), who was appointed when Franken resigned after multiple women accused him of touching them inappropriately. Housley calls it “the #MeToo seat.”
The politics of the movement based on men’s misdeeds, alleged and proved, are inescapable for the two women running for the Minnesota seat. That’s not just because Franken stepped down — a decision with which some state Democrats still disagree. It’s also because the state attorney general’s race has been upended by an abuse accusation from an ex-girlfriend of the Democratic nominee, Rep. Keith Ellison. And because Housley has criticized the treatment of Brett M. Kavanaugh over a decades-old assault accusation during hearings on his nomination to the Supreme Court — a post he was nominated to by a president who has also been accused of sexual misconduct. Ellison, Kavanaugh and President Trump have all denied allegations against them.
Smith and Housley are both trying to avoid being dragged down by the alleged misdeeds of men in their own party — and are accusing each other of being women who don’t sufficiently support women.
“In Minnesota probably more than anywhere else, you have an issue where it is Democrats really having to deal with this in their own house, in their own family,” said Kelly Dittmar, a Rutgers University sociologist who has done extensive research on races with two female candidates.
In an interview, Housley criticized Smith’s endorsement of Ellison and accused her of hypocrisy. “Everyone deserves to be heard, whoever the accuser is,” Housley said.
Smith lobbed similar accusations against Housley. “My approach has been completely consistent. Take what women say seriously. That hasn’t always happened in this country,” she said in an interview. “And then we need to fully investigate.”
Smith said accusations of wrongdoing against men aren’t at the top of voters’ minds. She wants to focus more on health-care costs and an opioid bill she helped draft. Smith doesn’t have much of an incumbency advantage; the former lieutenant governor has been in the seat since January, after Gov. Mark Dayton (D) tapped her to fill it.
Seventeen percent of Minnesotans told pollsters for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio News this month that they didn’t recognize her name; twice as many didn’t recognize Housley, a state senator since 2012 with a background in real estate.
Housley’s cheery demeanor is strikingly different from Trump’s, but she hasn’t left much daylight between herself and the president, even describing herself as a “rubber stamp” for his policies. Asked how she differs, she names her opposition to separating families at the border, then she’s stumped.
“I said yesterday, ‘I’ve got to remember, that’s another thing I disagree with him on,’” she complained with a grin. “Shoot, we had one more!”
Asked about accusations of sexual misconduct against Trump, Housley said she can work with him on policy goals and distanced herself from his personal behavior.
“I really don’t know what he’s like. That’s not my job. My job is the United States Senate. The president’s policies are working and people are happy. They’re feeling it in their pocketbooks,” she said. “Being in the real estate business for years and years, I got used to working with people that I might not always like. I didn’t have to embrace them. I was getting the job done for my clients.”
The latest poll, for the Star Tribune and MPR, showed Smith leading Housley 47 percent to 41 percent, with 10 percent undecided. She had a 19 percentage point advantage with female voters, reflecting a Democratic edge with women around the country, fueled by anger against Trump and a more recent wave of fury at Republicans shepherding Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court after a woman’s accusation that he assaulted her when they were both teens. Among men, Housley had a seven percentage point lead.
The state’s other senator, Democrat Amy Klobuchar, is also up for reelection and has a substantial lead over her opponent, Republican Jim Newberger. Klobuchar drew attention when her questioning of Kavanaugh during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing prompted a sharp comment and then apology from him. Both Smith and Klobuchar voted against Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
Smith draws a distinction between the situations involving Kavanaugh and attorney general nominee Ellison. In the first case, she said, it was her job as a senator to determine his credibility. In the state race, she said, it’s voters who must decide. She has stood by her support of Ellison, who was shown trailing Republican Doug Wardlow in the Star Tribune/MPR poll. Ellison has repeatedly denied the claim by his ex-girlfriend that he dragged her off a bed while yelling obscenities at her during a fight. Ellison last month requested a House Ethics Committee investigation; an inquiry by the state party wasn’t able to substantiate the claim.
“I believe that he will be a far superior attorney general to the alternative,” Smith said in an interview. “I know him to be a man of integrity.”
Housley, on the other hand, says Kavanaugh was treated unfairly. She also frequently attacks Smith for endorsing Ellison — while also talking about the danger of false accusations.
Some Minnesota voters share her concerns.
Kris Linder, a Republican from Cambridge, an hour north of Minneapolis, said she was turned off by Democrats’ handling of the hearing on Kavanaugh.
“I think if you go back maybe more than 10 or 15 years, people change,” said Linder, who also said she was sexually abused when she was younger but never brought charges because she didn’t have proof. “I thought that was unsubstantiated.”
Other Minnesota women say they’re simply fed up with Republicans’ attitudes toward women, starting with the president. Kim Deutsch, who drove to Washington to attend the Women’s March protesting Trump’s election, was excited when she saw Smith at a documentary screening at a St. Louis Park movie theater. “I just put your yard sign up yesterday,” she said to Smith. Turning aside, she gushed, “Her spunk. She’s so intelligent.”
At the theater, numerous people called out to Smith to wish her luck or to say she has their vote. Two little girls eagerly asked to take a photo with her. Almost every person who recognized her and voiced support was female (with the exception of former World Series-winning Minnesota Twins catcher Tim Laudner, who rushed through the theater to speak to Smith).
But down an unpaved road in Welch (population 751), Jeanne Anderson isn’t so sure.
At the invitation of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, both Smith and Housley came by Anderson’s farm, and Anderson, who describes herself as liberal, watched her husband, Les, a conservative Republican, talk politics while she hung back to serve the coffee and cookies.
She’s incensed about women’s pay still lagging behind men’s, about male business associates who turn to Les instead of her with questions about the farm work, about legislators who would curtail access to birth control and abortion.
She plans to vote for Klobuchar but wonders whether either Smith or Housley really understands and will address her concerns. “It’s hard to form an opinion,” she said. “You don’t know what to trust.”