Battle lines drawn in Smith/Housley Senate race

It has all the makings of a typical Senate race -- incumbent touts her achievements while challenger attacks her record and paints her as out-of-touch.

Karin Housley
Karin Housley

It has all the makings of a typical Senate race - incumbent touts her achievements while challenger attacks her record and paints her as out-of-touch.

Except Democratic Sen. Tina Smith has been in office a mere eight months, and the seat will again be up for grabs in two years.

The usual battle lines are being drawn in the unusual special election to fill out the remainder of former Sen. Al Franken's term after he resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal at the beginning of the year.

In an interview, Republican challenger Karin Housley stressed her commitment to business-friendly policies, affordable health care and elder care.

"I'm a small business owner, and I want to get government out of the way to help grow jobs," she said. "The Affordable Care Act proved not to be affordable, and I'd like to get it back in line and get it affordable again."


Smith, appointed to the Senate by Gov. Mark Dayton in January, said she has focused on rural economic issues like agriculture and broadband access as well as the cost of health care.

"The very first bill I introduced was to lower the cost of drugs," she told the News Tribune. "I've worked a lot on health care issues - it's the No. 1 issue when I hear from Minnesota voters."

Of the two U.S. Senate races on Minnesota ballots this fall, the Smith/Housley contest is widely seen as more competitive than the Amy Klobuchar/Jim Newberger matchup. Which means neither candidate is taking any votes for granted heading into November.

"I've always been focused on trying to find common ground," Smith said, a sentiment Housley echoed: "I have a proven track record of reaching across the aisle."

Housley grew up in South St. Paul. Following college, she worked as a TV news producer and radio host before authoring an investment book and starting a real estate business. She was elected to the Minnesota Senate representing District 39 along the lower St. Croix River in 2012 and won re-election in 2016.

"I'm bringing real life experience to the United States Senate," Housley said. "I'm a small business owner, mom, grandmother - a new voice for Minnesota."

Smith grew up in New Mexico and moved to Minnesota after college in 1984 to work at General Mills. She later started her own marketing business, worked for Planned Parenthood as a vice president of external affairs and was involved in several DFL campaigns over the past 20 years. In 2011 Smith was named Dayton's chief of staff and saw her name on a ballot for the first time in 2014 when she ran alongside Dayton as lieutenant governor - a role she held until being appointed to the Senate.

"I have a demonstrated ability to work across party lines to deliver for Minnesota," Smith said.


Neither had strong words regarding President Donald Trump. Smith said she's willing to work with anyone "who wants to work with me in good faith ... and I'm willing to stand up for Minnesotans when needed. I think he's flat wrong in trying to roll back protections for pre-existing conditions."

Housley said Trump's "economic policies are working, and I want to continue to help support those policies."

"I think it's important to have another voice to tell him what we're thinking here - there is no direct line to the president (from Minnesota)," she said.

As far as the most immediate issue facing the Senate right now - the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court - Smith is a hard no, and Housley is a firm yes.

"I think he's highly qualified, and I'm sure Congress will get the work done and vote to confirm him," Housley said.

Smith disagreed: "We can see how he's wrong on issues that matter to Minnesota - voting rights, access to health care - and I'm deeply concerned about Judge Kavanaugh's opinion on whether the president should be subject to (criminal investigation) while in office."

On rural issues, Smith touted measures she fought to include in the bipartisan farm bill that passed the Senate - such as rural health liaisons, the sugar program and aid for new farmers.

"We need to get it done, because there is a lot of uncertainty in Minnesota's farm economy, especially with trade issues," she said.


Housley said she's been a better ally for farmers during her time in the state Legislature.

"(Smith) has been in support of buffer strips, and that's not rural, farmer-friendly," Housley said.

On the contentious proposals for copper-nickel mines in northern Minnesota, Smith backed a bill this summer to expedite a land swap for the PolyMet project near Hoyt Lakes - although the measure was dropped from the final bill. Housley said "we can have both clean water and mining in Minnesota."

Housley would be the first Republican to win a Senate seat in Minnesota since former Sen. Norm Coleman won in 2002 - but she said momentum is on her side.

"The message is really resonating and snowballing," she said. "At the state fair our GOP booth sold out of all our shirts in the first week - and there was always a line."

Smith said her outreach and willingness to listen has resonated with voters across the state.

"I have worked to be a voice for Minnesota here in the Senate to get things done," she said.

Whatever the result in November, the campaigns won't idle for long - both candidates said they'll be running for a full term in 2020 if they win.


Tina Smith

Democratic U.S. Senate Candidate

Residence: Minneapolis

Age: 60

Experience: Appointed to U.S. Senate in January; elected Minnesota lieutenant governor 2014; chief of staff for Gov. Mark Dayton 2011-2014 and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak 2006-2010; DFL campaign work; Planned Parenthood executive; business owner; General Mills marketing executive.

Education: Bachelor's at Stanford University and master's at Dartmouth College

Family: Married to Archie Smith; two adult children



Karin Housley

Republican U.S. Senate Candidate

Residence: St. Marys Point

Age: 54

Experience: Elected state senator for District 39 in 2012 and 2016; real estate business owner; published author; former television producer and radio host.

Education: Bachelor's at the State University of New York at Buffalo

Family: Married to Phil Housley; four children; two grandchildren

Online: .


Note: Her first name is pronounced CAR-in - it does not rhyme with Karen

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Jerry Trooien - Independent

A 70-year-old real estate developer from Mendota Heights who is not accepting donations from lobbyists, PACs or special interest groups and said: "I will work to get public officials to remove their ideological straight-jackets. Our current party system does not liberate us to find solutions, it stifles and entrenches us." Find out more at .

Sarah Wellington - Legal Marijuana Now

A former teacher in St. Paul and member of the state Task Force on Medical Cannabis Therapeutic Research, her message is in the name of her party: "Let's work together to change something that should be done already." Find out more at .

Tina Smith
Tina Smith

Brooks Johnson was an enterprise/investigative reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune from 2016 to 2019.
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