Jason Lewis, a Republican who made his name in conservative talk radio, won a four-way primary Tuesday in Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District.
Lewis moves on to face Democratic nominee Angie Craig for a seat Republicans have long held. It will be an expensive, and by early indications, fierce campaign.
Lewis came into the primary with the Republican apparatus behind him as the party’s endorsed candidate. But he wasn’t exactly waving the party flag when addressing dozens of supporters at his campaign headquarters as results rolled in and signaled his convincing win ahead.
“The establishment of both parties have their warning,” he said. “The status quo will not hold. And you and I and everybody else are going to change it, and we’re going to move the country in the right direction. We’re going to get this economy moving again. We’re going to secure those borders, and we’re going to have the kind of America again that we can hand off to our children that we can be proud of.”
Lewis campaigned as the outsider in the race. His chief rival, businesswoman Darlene Miller, was the choice of many mainstream Republicans, including retiring U.S. Rep. John Kline. Former state Sen. John Howe, R- Red Wing, was also in the race and finished a distant third.
Lewis says he tapped into an anxious voter mood.
“I think people are really ready for genuine change,” he said. “That becomes a cliché in politics. But after a while people say, ‘I’ve listened to Jason over the years, and that’s a guy who is going to affect change and not just put party above principle.'”
His next opponent, DFL candidate Angie Craig, is positioning herself as someone who can appeal to centrists.
“I’m going to be looking for common ground,” said Craig. “I’m going to be looking to work and listen to people that I don’t necessarily, policywise align with. I’m going to have an open mind. I’m going to sit down and work with the other side.”
But for the next few months, the former medical device company executive is primed to pick up where Republican challengers to Lewis left off: Dredging up old radio show statements and other provocative commentary to portray him as extreme.
“His rhetoric in demeaning women, his rhetoric commenting on states’ rights related to the Civil War, none of that rhetoric helps us creates jobs in the 2nd Congressional District. None of that rhetoric helps us make college more affordable,” she said.
The state Republican Party came out firing at Craig, calling her a far left candidate who doesn’t fit the district south of the Twin Cities.
And Lewis says rehashing quotes from a decade or more ago is “gotcha politics” and doesn’t accurately reflect his views.
“Not only are the specific distortions old news, but that brand of politicking is old news,” he said.
Lewis believes that strategy will backfire, and his radio program likely paid some dividends. Some primary voters said they got to know and trust Lewis as regular listeners.
Darren Silverness cast his ballot for Lewis in Burnsville. The call center director was a fan of Lewis on the air, agrees with his libertarian philosophy and likes his assertive style.
“He’s very direct, and he again believes that government should work for the people and be smaller in doing so,” said Silverness. “Just his ability to be persuasive on the floor and really speak intelligently with what his views are and back them up with facts are what resonates with me.”
But Lewis has work to do to unite factions of his party who went with another candidate.
In an interview before Lewis was declared the winner, Miller declined to say if she’ll get behind a candidate she had branded as erratic and unelectable.
“I will definitely look at all the options out there, but we’re going to win, so I don’t think I’ll have to do that,” she said.
A Facebook statement Miller made after the Lewis victory didn’t mention him.
Greg Robinson works in finance and considers himself an independent who has voted Republican before. Robinson voted for Miller.
Outside his Burnsville polling place, he says he’s turned off by Lewis for another reason: The candidate’s willingness to support Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for president. That could be enough to swing Robinson to Craig.
“Yeah, I’ll vote for the Democrat,” he said. “I’m not voting for Trump, and I won’t vote for anyone who supports him. It’s as simple as that. It’s all it is.”