Washington – Re-election may have just become more complicated for U.S. Rep. John Kline in his moderate suburban district.
Republican poll numbers have plummeted nationwide after the 16-day government shutdown, as the GOP takes the brunt of the public’s wrath.
Kline is a prime Democratic target who won his last election by a narrow margin, and his challengers are buoyed by the aftermath of the political slugfest that has left Republicans reeling.
“Any Republican congressional incumbent in a district that isn’t deep red needs to take serious the possibility that the race will be more competitive than they assumed it would be a month ago,” said Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier.
Despite Democrats’ sensing an opening, the path to unseating Kline could prove difficult.
Kline was a top target a year ago, yet managed to win, even with President Obama atop the ticket.
Now, he has $1.3 million banked for his re-election run, giving him an 11-to-1 fundraising advantage over former state Rep. Mike Obermueller, the presumed DFL front-runner in the Second District.
The Rothenberg Political Report, a respected political handicapper, lists Kline’s seat, which covers the Twin Cities’ southern suburbs, as “Republican-favored.”
But the shutdown may have shaken things up, at least temporarily.
A poll of 825 likely voters conducted this week for House Majority PAC, a political action committee working to elect Democrats to the U.S. House, shows Obermueller leading Kline, 42 to 38 percent.
Conducted by liberal-leaning firm Public Policy Polling, the poll also found that 42 percent of respondents view Kline unfavorably, compared to 32 percent favorably. The numbers for his job approval are similar.
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points, and its results resemble national numbers that may be troubling for Republicans, even for an election that is still more than a year away.
The GOP’s post-shutdown image hit an all-time low, as measured by a Washington Post-ABC News poll, in a survey released Tuesday: 32 percent of the public saw the GOP favorably; 63 percent had an unfavorable view.
Kline’s campaign brushed aside talk of sagging approval ratings in the shutdown’s immediate aftermath. In the end, Kline helped end the standoff by crossing party lines to vote with Democrats and against hard-line Republicans like Rep. Michele Bachmann to get a compromise bill through the House.
“The only poll that matters is on Election Day — 13 months from now — and Congressman Kline has a strong record of receiving solid support from Minnesotans in the Second District regardless of the political climate because they recognize he represents their views and values and is fighting for them,” said campaign spokesman Troy Young.
Among the 435 U.S. House districts, Kline holds one of just 17 Republican seats in districts that President Obama won last year.
Obama also won in Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen’s district, but no candidates from either party have yet stepped forward to challenge Paulsen.
Kline faces the perception that he’s too conservative for his district, which took on more traditionally Democratic territory in the last round of redistricting, Schier said. “That’s what leads to the optimism for his competitors,” he said.
From now until next November, Obermueller plans to hammer Kline on the shutdown, highlighting the congressman’s role in his party’s attempt to defund the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Obermueller and Democrat Thomas Craft said Kline could have helped end the shutdown sooner if he dared to veer from the party line.
“He’s had an opportunity to build himself up to look like a statesman and act like a moderate or talk like a moderate, but the reality is that the votes don’t lie,” said Obermueller, who lost to Kline by 8 percentage points in last fall’s election.
Craft said he also plans to focus on Kline’s voting record. According to opencongress.org, a site that tracks congressional voting trends, Kline votes with his party 95 percent of the time.
“In this district, people expect that their representative is going to be a bit more moderate and John Kline has definitely shown over time that he’s not,” Craft said.
Kline’s vote to end the shutdown has also energized hard-line conservatives. Republican David Gerson said Kline “hasn’t upheld our Republican values.” Kline trounced Gerson last year, winning 85 percent of the vote.
The Star Tribune could not immediately reach DFL candidate Paula Overby for comment.
So far, Democratic donors and super PACs, such as House Majority PAC, haven’t poured much cash into the Second District race. That will change if they sense that ousting Kline could help them win the 17 seats they need to recapture control of the House.
But for all of the public anger directed at Republicans now, the election is still a year away. Alleigh Marré, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Kline has weathered tough political climates in the past, including in 2006 when Democrats won 31 seats to take control of the House.
Democrats will keep reminding voters of the shutdown, but Republican operatives expect that as time goes on, frustration with Obama’s Affordable Care Act will grow, making the budget fight a distant memory come next fall.
“Kline can always say that this was all about Obamacare,” Schier said. “If Obamacare’s still a big issue, he may be able to make headway with that.”
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. • Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell