STILLWATER, Minn. — Jason Lewis' strategy for knocking off Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith has been clear for over a year: For better or worse, the former congressman is all in for President Donald Trump.
Lewis, a one-term former congressman best known from his days as a conservative talk radio host known as "Minnesota's Mr. Right," stresses their common opposition to coronavirus restrictions, support for law and order in the state where George Floyd was killed, and the need to put Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court.
"All of these issues that are surrounding life, liberty and property are on the ballot," Lewis told supporters at a recent get-out-the-vote rally in Stillwater. "Really what's on the ballot is whether we're going to have a constitutional republic or whether we're going to have mob rule."
Trump has returned the love with frequent name-checks at his recent rallies in Mankato, Bemidji and Duluth. Lewis was part of a four-person welcoming committee when Trump arrived in Minneapolis on his most recent visit, and he got to fly with Trump on Air Force One up to Duluth, albeit in a separate cabin.
But it's not clear the strategy is working.
A recent New York Times/Siena College poll gave Smith a 9-point lead over Lewis, the same margin that the same poll gave Biden over Trump in Minnesota. Trump, who has often talked about capturing Minnesota this year after coming within a whisker in 2016, has recently cut back on ad buys in the state. And the race isn't showing up on major handicappers' lists of Senate seats likely to flip.
And in a year when control of the Senate hangs in the balance, the race hasn't attracted much outside spending, leaving Smith with a huge money advantage through late summer.
Lewis conceded his financial handicap in an interview. But he said he sees a huge "enthusiasm gap" between Republicans and Democrats in greater Minnesota — the mostly conservative part outside the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area — and believes it will put him over the top.
Smith countered in a separate interview that she doesn't see any enthusiasm gap. She said she instead is seeing a strong desire wherever she goes to get the country "back on the right track."
"I hear from people every day about how exhausted they are by the division and the chaos and the fear, and they're looking for leadership that is about bringing us together and finding common ground," Smith said. "They appreciate that there are real divisions in our community right now, but they don't want to see gas thrown on that flame."
The senator is in the rare position of having to defend her seat for the second time in two years. She was Gov. Mark Dayton's lieutenant governor when he appointed her to the seat in 2017 after Sen. Al Franken resigned. Smith beat GOP state Sen. Karin Housley by nearly 11 points in 2018 in a special election to complete Franken's term.
Smith gets less attention than Minnesota's senior senator, Amy Klobuchar, who enjoyed a blowout re-election in 2018 and raised her national profile since then by running for president. Trump took aim at Smith's lower profile at his recent rallies in the state.
"You have a senator that he's running against. I won't even mention names. She does nothing, nothing. Nobody even knows who the hell she is," Trump said in Bemidji.
But Smith, who has worked to build an image as a workhorse lawmaker, said she's proud that she's been able to get over two dozen pieces of legislation signed into law.
"I see compromise as a virtue, not a vice, because I know how to work across party lines," she said.
The senator is navigating how to campaign amid both the pandemic and a job that has kept her in Washington for much of the campaign season. On a recent Friday, she appeared via Zoom at a forum on health care, denouncing Trump for seeking "at an epic pivot point in our country" to dismantle the Obama administration's health care overhaul. She devoted the weekend to in-person events — with social distancing and face masks. First came a small business tour of Waite Park, Willmar, Morris and Fergus Falls. She then headed for get-out-the-vote events in Duluth and Chisholm.
"You miss having that kind of one-on-one contact," she said, estimating that she had done 65 to 70 virtual events. "But you make up for it in other ways."
Lewis, by contrast, has been on the campaign trail extensively and doesn't worry much about masking or distancing. He has railed against Minnesota's coronavirus restrictions since the early days of the pandemic. He even sued Gov. Tim Walz, claiming the Democratic governor's guidelines interfered with his freedom to campaign.
But Lewis recently got knocked off the campaign trail twice in less than a week due to the coronavirus. The first time was when the White House announced that Trump had COVID-19, just two days after Lewis had greeted Trump at the Minneapolis airport and rode with him on Air Force One to Duluth. Lewis had just returned to normal campaigning when he learned that he came in contact with someone who had tested positive, forcing another temporary self-quarantine.
"Look, this is a serious public health challenge. I get it," Lewis said. "We ought to protect the vulnerable. If you are infirm, if you're elderly, if you have an underlying condition, social distance, wear a mask, stay at home. But you don't make a mandate to the entire country, let alone the entire state ... in the name of a public health challenge."