One debate does not an election make. Yet having just watched the first debate between incumbent republican Erik Paulsen and DFL state senator Terri Bonoff I have to conclude that unless something dramatic happens the voters of CD 3--including many republicans--may well make Bonoff their next member of Congress.
I was shocked at how poorly Paulsen performed: tied to notes, rote, dispassionate, reverting to tropes that had no traction and unable to articulate a single reason why voters should support him except for voting on the next Speaker of the House.
Who gave him such lousy advice? Minnesota House republicans? It was an uneven match in terms of effective communication and sheer persuasive skills.
Bonoff stressed her private sector experience of twenty years, something of which Paulsen has none, having been an elected official of some sort or another since he was twenty-five. She appeared fresh, cogent and not a machine politician. In other words, Bonoff had the better grasp of the zeitgeist and not the three term member of Congress. Go figure.
Time and again Bonoff stressed how she had voted apart from her party's positions on several issues. Paulsen's supporters on Twitter were fast and good at pointing out various discrepancies in those claims but the incumbent only occasionally contradicted her. The net result was that the democrat seemed far more well positioned as an independent political actor than her opponent.
Paulsen appeared particularly abject when dancing around whether to support Trump. He tried to cast Bonoff's endorsement of Hillary as a negative. This in the Third District?
When it comes to Trump Erik Paulsen is no Tom Emmer, by which I mean he has no idea how to message effectively and still affirmatively support the republican candidate for president. I'm no Biblical scholar but didn't Christ say something about spitting people out of His mouth who are neither hot nor cold?
People respect loyalty even if they disagree with that to which the loyalty is pledged. It's seen as a sign of character, of substance. By equivocating, at best, over supporting Trump, Erik Paulsen earns himself the worst of both worlds and possibly a pink slip.
Paulsen emphasized his efforts to eliminate the medical device tax, which is simply doing his donors' bidding. He also stressed he worked with Sen. Amy Klobuchar on sex trafficking. Neither of these issues do anything for his constituents in the district but it's all in keeping with bad consultant advice to appear as little a genuine republican as possible in the district. I'm used to democrats thinking voters are stupid but it's galling to see that approach taken by a so called republican.
Paulsen rarely went on offense, something of a sine qua non for both GOPe and MNGOPe types. Instead, they want to be liked by media and elites in an increasingly one party state. Once, and only once, did he say plainly that fellow Congressional republicans hadn't done enough to advance their own agenda. No kidding: how else does one explain the base abandoning such career politicians to embrace Trump? Good, bad or indifferent, Trump at least promises the potential to change things.
The questions asked in the debate were all generated by various Chambers of Commerce and so naturally didn't include a single one about illegal immigration. There was one question about trade and even there Paulsen couldn't rise to the occasion and steal from Trump: he's for fair trade but some of these deals have injured the American worker and should be modified.
Given the opportunity to say clearly that he supported a "repeal and replace" strategy with respect to Obamacare, Paulsen couldn't bring himself to do it. I wanted to slap him. Instead he noodled around the edges, muttering about keeping 26 year olds on their parents' insurance policies.
Bonoff's closing was a tour de force: focused, concise and designed to appeal to those who had previously voted republican. Paulsen's was boiler plate, ending with a recitation of the various groups who have endorsed him. By then it was far too late: he lost decisively in this high profile debate.
To be sure, Paulsen is the incumbent and has a good deal of money on hand. Yet I don't think that's good enough with a challenger as accomplished as Terri Bonoff.
Voters need a reason to keep someone in office and Paulsen gave them very little. By contrast, Bonoff positioned herself perfectly in the debate, saying explicitly she was someone voters could trust.
Paulsen never uttered the word.
Photo credit: MPR
Shortly after this was posted The Uptake tweeted out about a minute video of Rep. Paulsen answering questions about his refusal to support Trump. It's painful to watch. Clickhere.
Correction: The initial version of this article had Paulsen a 14 year member of Congress. That is incorrect. He is a three term member seeking his fourth term and the piece has been revised accordingly. He has held elective office of some sort continuously since 1995.