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– Tim Walz, the soldier turned geography teacher turned unlikely congressman, is trying to chart a course to Minnesota’s governorship across the state’s fractured political map.

“I loathe the idea that people have found a way to wedge us, especially on geographic differences — outstate vs. metro,” said the DFLer from Mankato.

Now mounting his first statewide bid, Walz is a kind of endangered political species: the rural Democrat. He was re-elected to Congress only narrowly last year, as President Donald Trump carried every county but one in Walz’s home turf of southern Minnesota’s First Congressional District.

Minnesota Democrats who watched, aghast, as Republican red engulfed most of the state’s electoral map last November are looking for candidates who can win rural voters back to the fold. Walz, an affable former high school teacher and coach with a reputation for building bipartisan relationships in Congress, offers the party a tantalizing shot at putting the “farmer” back in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

But first, Walz, 53, needs to build support among DFLers in the Twin Cities, where the party draws much of its strength and where activists have less personal experience with him than others in the party’s crowded field for governor. And Republicans have already started sharpening their attacks, claiming Walz is just another Washington insider these days.

Walz “never once voted to fix Obamacare on any of the dozens of occasions he could have done so,” read a news release last week from the Republican Governors Association (RGA), highlighting critical remarks Walz made recently about the Affordable Care Act, which he voted for.

That a national Republican group would single out Walz now suggests the other side views him as formidable. Walz’s repeated success in a swing district and access to national donors as a sitting congressman have propelled him to the front of DFL ranks; U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, highly popular with progressive activists, predicted in April that Walz would be the party’s nominee to replace the retiring Gov. Mark Dayton.

The DFL’s 2018 field is still unsettled, and activists won’t confer a party endorsement for 11 months. But candidates including Walz are already busy wooing activists, trying to build name recognition at parades and personal appearances, and lining up financial support.

Battleground Minnesota

The governor’s seat is up for grabs next year, the Cook Political Report ruled in June.

“One of things that became apparent in 2016 is that Minnesota remains more purple than blue,” the nonpartisan election analysis site concluded, as it moved Minnesota from “Lean Democrat” into the “tossup” category. “Both parties are hosting crowded primaries and the outcome of both those contests will determine how competitive this contest becomes in the general election, but after eight years of a Democratic governor, voters might be ready for a change,” the publication reported.

Besides Walz, DFLers already in the race are St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, and three state representatives: Erin Murphy of St. Paul, Tina Liebling of Rochester and Paul Thissen of Minneapolis. The declared Republican candidates are Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, state Rep. Matt Dean of Dellwood and Ramsey County Commissioner Blake Huffman.

Without playing favorites, Minnesota DFL Chair Ken Martin said Walz is a known and trusted quantity back in the state.

“Authenticity in politics is a rare thing,” Martin said. “He’s certainly a strong candidate.”

After a decade in Congress, Walz knows his district — a green ribbon of farmland, prairie that spools across Minnesota’s entire southern border, dotted with a few bustling cities like Rochester, Winona and Mankato. Walz’s challenge over the next year-plus will be to broaden his appeal and build connections to the rest of the state.

“I’m having fun with it — seeing how different the state is. People are different in Hibbing than Mankato,” joked Walz, who has spent recent weekends hopscotching the state, putting in appearances in places like last month’s Twin Cities Pride parade, diving into issues such as taconite mining, and studying up on which towns have the biggest infrastructure headaches.

While he’s far from the only DFL contender touching all those bases at the moment, it’s Walz who’s drawing early, critical attention from the GOP.

The RGA recently posted a YouTube clip from one of Walz’s town halls where he aired concerns about the Affordable Care Act. The footage was quickly picked up by state Republican groups to hammer Walz.

“The [Democratic National Committee] wanted the message to be, ‘The ACA is doing fine, and don’t talk about the warts,’ ” Walz tells the crowd in the brief video. “I said, I can’t do that, because it’s failing my constituents in a lot of ways.”

The Republican-aligned Minnesota Jobs Coalition, funded largely by business interests, dubbed him “Washington Walz.”

Walz, for his part, describes himself as a guy who had never been inside the U.S. Capitol before he took office in 2007, and who sleeps on a cot in his office between weekend trips home to his district and his family. Now, he said, he wants to come back home and help Minnesota deal with the Trump-era policies that will be coming out of Congress in the years ahead.

“The real decisions, from health care to education — because of this Congress — are going to happen at the state level,” Walz said.

Striking a balance

Politicians who reach a hand across the aisle in Washington sometimes pull back a stump.

But once a week, Walz laces up his sneakers and joins a bipartisan running group as it sprints away from a Capitol convulsed by bitter partisan disputes over health care, immigration, budgets and taxes.

In a House divided, Walz would rather run with his colleagues than against them.

“Being bipartisan may be viewed as a weakness in some quarters,” said Walz, who has signed on to more bipartisan bills than almost anyone else in Congress. “I reject that idea.”

Of the 351 bills Walz co-sponsored last term, more than half — 54 percent — were sponsored with non-Democrats. The legislative site GovTrack ranked him as the 9th most bipartisan member in Congress in 2016.

Walz’s seats on committees like Veterans Affairs and Agriculture lend themselves to cooperation and blurred party lines. Walz, who served in the National Guard for 24 years and retired at the rank of command sergeant major, is the highest-ranking enlisted soldier ever elected to Congress.

“It’s about effectiveness. I go search out a bipartisan cosponsor because the odds of getting [legislation] done are greater, and I really want to get it done,” he said. Introducing legislation without buy-in from the majority is “just making a message,” he said. “I’m much more interested in getting it across the finish line.”

Walz has blasted the Trump administration over everything from proposed budget cuts to the Republican health care bills to the president’s “cyberbullying” on Twitter. He said he views some of the Trump administration’s behavior as clearly out of bounds but also believes that politicians who only oppose things are “the very thing that people are most irritated about.”

The question for Walz as he prepares to navigate the tricky politics of the DFL selection process is whether party activists actually want a governor who is willing to work with Republicans — or one who identifies more firmly with what many on the left have come to identify as a resistance movement.

“Do you really want the person who’s rigidly opposed across the way?” Walz said. “I’m going to find out.”

Jennifer Brooks • 202-662-7452