There’s an important primary battle in Minnesota Congressional District 2 (CD-2) between Democrats Angie Craig and Jeff Erdmann, a place where I grew up and where most of my family still lives. Whoever wins the primary (via Minnesota’s complicated caucus system) will have an excellent chance to unseat first-term Republican incumbent Jason Lewis, who Craig narrowly lost to in 2016. Lewis has been a rubber stamp for Trump’s, Paul Ryan’s, and the Koch Brothers’ agenda. The Koch brothers gave Ryan $500,000 thirteen days after he helped pass the Republican Tax Bill that enriched them by billions of dollars, which Lewis supported. He’s also supported all of Trump’s ugly anti-immigrant policies and the “AHCA” that would have kicked millions off of health insurance and stripped protections for those with preexisting conditions.
Worse yet, Lewis is the type of libertarian so wed to his anti-government ideology he voted against providing minimal disaster relief to Puerto Rico – a measure that Trump approved and passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support. And, as is typical among these types (political dorks like me will recognize this type immediately), he’s got some abhorrent views on slavery, “white genocide” (complaining that Latinos have higher birth rates so whites are committing “suicide”), and women, calling them “simply ignorant of the important issues in life” and calling most young women “non-thinking.”
Although voters elected Lewis, the district is very winnable for Democrats. Obama defeated Romney in CD-2 49.1-49.0, but lost by two points to McCain. The Cook Political Report calls it a “Republican Toss-Up.” In the general election, Trump barely received more votes than Clinton here (46%-45%). (CD-2 consists of the southeastern suburbs of St. Paul and rural farming communities beyond: all of Scott, Dakota, Goodhue, and Wabasha counties, plus parts of Rice and Washington County.)
As with Clinton’s loss to Trump, I think Craig’s loss to Lewis was due to a multitude of factors, some of which were not in Craig’s control – health insurance premiums spiking right before the election, running as a Democrat after a Democrat had held the presidency for eight years, and following the Democrats’ terrible national strategy to target the mythological moderate suburban Republican instead of blue-collar voters. But some of the reasons she lost were specific to her campaign. An incredibly well-reported recent article by Ryan Grim and Lee Fang at The Intercept explains how disappointing Craig’s results really were:
Despite spending $4.8 million, Craig lost by 2 points. That narrow defeat, though, belied the true failure of her campaign. She was, objectively, the least inspiring candidate up and down the ballot: Craig underperformed Clinton by 4,000 votes and even underperformed Democratic state Senate and House candidates by 13,000 and 2,000 votes, respectively. In 2012, the previous presidential cycle, congressional candidate Mike Obermueller spent $710,000 for a nearly identical level of support.
This is where Jeff Erdmann comes in. The Intercept piece explains how Erdmann, while volunteering for Craig in 2016, couldn’t get answers from Craig’s campaign on policy positions voters were asking about. The reason? The campaign didn’t want to give ammunition to Republicans, and hadn’t yet received the results of polling. In other words, Craig ran the type of cookie-cutter “vote for me because the other guy is terrible” campaign that Clinton ran against Trump, and the type of campaign promoted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the corporate-funded campaign arm of House Democrats. Uffda.
Due to his frustrations with Craig’s campaign and her and Clinton’s disastrous losses in 2016, Erdmann has decided to challenge Craig in the 2018 Democratic primary. As one might expect, when it comes to the issues, he’s taking a bolder approach than Craig.
Erdmann’s policy platform has concrete proposals. Specificity is key when trying to evaluate candidates: like Craig, most candidates – Democrat or Republican – fill their websites with empty platitudes about “making healthcare more affordable” and “strengthening the economy.” At the top of Erdmann’s Issues page, though, it boldly states “Medicare-for-All,” with a link to a five-page position paper laying out the benefits of the system and how it would be paid for. He follows that with “An Equal Economy” with three subcategories with further details: “Increase Taxes on Wealthy,” “Eliminate Tax Loopholes,” and “Wall Street Reform.” Yes, please. He proposes specific political reforms to improve democracy – like a National Popular Vote – and he also has a three-page position paper on “Improving Rural Economies” (as you can tell, I’m a big fan of a campaign with position papers). His policy platform, while not containing everything on my wishlist, closely aligns with what people at the grassroots actually want.
Craig’s policy platform is okay, mostly because it’s intentionally filled with boilerplate rhetoric, making it difficult to nail her down on any specific policy. To her credit, she does propose two years of free post-high school education, whereas Erdmann talks more generally about investing in higher education and reducing student debt. Where Craig’s platform really falls short in contrast to Erdmann’s, though, is on healthcare.
Craig never mentions Medicare-for-All or single-payer, instead repeating familiar establishment bromides about fixing the ACA while “moving toward” “universal” healthcare. Progressive activists, especially those fighting for single-payer in California (like me), understand this phrasing is bullshit. We know through experience that most rhetoric about “universal healthcare” is actually a euphemism for “I’m not going to fight for Medicare-for-All or anything that will significantly challenge the private-insurance and Big PhRma-dominated status quo.”
Craig shows her hand when her website says we should move toward “making sure every family has healthcare they can afford” (emphasis added). There is no “affording” healthcare under Medicare-for-All. In a system that truly provides universal healthcare, people would get the healthcare they need regardless of wealth or income. They would pay $0.00 at the point of service. That’s it. There are no “Does your insurance cover it? Are you in network? Can you afford your $4,000 deductible?” questions in a system that actually provides “universal” healthcare. It sounds magical, but it’s not: that’s the reality in nearly every other developed country in the world. They pay less and get better healthcare to boot!
Why doesn’t Craig support Medicare-for-All? The Intercept piece offers some clues: long story short, the DCCC backs candidates with some combination of the most money and most access to big donors who are relatively inoffensive to corporate coffers but maintain a respectable social liberalism. As you might have guessed, Craig fits that bill:
[W}hile at the medical device company St. Jude Medical, [Craig] directed the firm’s political action committee in the 2012 election cycle, after spending the previous six years on its board. The goal of the St. Jude PAC was to buy influence with Republican and Democratic leaders, as well as members of the tax-writing committees, in pursuit of repealing the medical device tax that was a key funding mechanism of the Affordable Care Act. The effort eventually met with significant success.
While she ran it, the PAC spent heavily on Republican politicians, directing funds in the 2012 cycle to Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell [and] Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch…
Medicare-for-All would give the federal government significantly more negotiating power against drug companies and medical device companies, and all but eliminate the concept of private health insurance. The entire purpose of a medical device PAC, like the one Craig directed, is to prevent that from happening and to maximize company profits. She’s not going to bite the hand that feeds her.
Generally, my rules of thumb for evaluating candidates are based on three factors:
1) Is the person clearly or probably a bigot?
This rule should have eliminated both Trump and Lewis in 2016; Craig and Erdmann look good here.
2) Does the person promote specific policies (so they can be held accountable) that will empower the poor, working- and middle-class people fighting for a decent life in our brutally unequal society?
To me, Erdmann has more specific and more transformative policy ideas than Craig, hands-down.
3) Who are they accountable to? Who’s paying for their campaign? In other words, can I trust they won’t sell me out once they go to Washington?
Craig’s reliance on wealthy and corporate donors, and her history of running a medical device PAC that generously donated to conservative politicians, is a serious concern. While Craig isn’t as reliant on the dark-money contributions of wealthy individuals and corporations as Jason Lewis, Erdmann has received $0 from PACs.
Craig does have a compelling personal story. She was raised by a single mother in a trailer park in Arkansas, and she’s a lesbian mother of four who was part of a groundbreaking legal battle that paved the way for same-sex couples to adopt children. Erdmann was born in Lewiston, Minnesota, is a two-time state champion football coach and has taught high school government classes for 27 years. All else being equal, it would be important to put a woman and member of the LGBTQ community in office. To me, though, Erdmann is the superior candidate because he’s better on the issues and more accountable to ordinary people, and Craig’s identity and representation don’t overcome the difference.
Moreover, in a district like CD-2 that Bernie Sanders won decisively over Hillary Clinton (58.2-41.8%), as he did state-wide in Minnesota, a candidate running on Medicare-for-All makes the most sense. As former Timberwolves GM David Kahn notoriously said about Darko Milicic, Erdmann is like manna from heaven for anyone hoping to flip the power dynamics in Congress in 2018. (Let’s just hope I don’t turn out to be David Kahn in this analogy.)
Polling and recent special election results seem to foreshadow a Democratic Party wave in 2018, and it’s possible both Craig and Erdmann would beat Lewis should they advance past the primary. Disappointingly (but unsurprisingly), Craig seems to be winning the endorsements race from the major Democratic Party players. But Erdmann is the one representing the grassroots with the better policies, and I think he would have the better chance of beating Lewis in the general election.