ST. PAUL - Keith Ellison, Keith Ellison, Keith Ellison.
It's all about Keith Ellison, at least according a Republican narrative as part of the first wave of what promises to be a tide of political attack ads coming to Minnesota's 2018 election season.
Even in races where Ellison isn't running, from the U.S. Senate high on the ballot down to state House races, he's under attack.
The Republican strategy comes as Ellison, a Democratic six-term member of the U.S. House from Minneapolis who is running for state attorney general against Republican Doug Wardlow, has been accused by an ex-girlfriend of emotionally and, in one alleged incident, physically abusing her. Ellison has denied the allegation.
The ads and social media messages basically say this: Democratic candidate (insert name) has refused to condemn Keith Ellison for domestic abuse. He/she should be ashamed.
The goal of attacking is less to change the minds of his supporters as it is to fire up Republicans to turn out the R vote, several Republican strategists said.
Ellison would have had a target on him even without the abuse allegations.
The moment Ellison won the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party primary for attorney general last month, Republican strategists knew this: Every Republican in Minnesota, for the first time in their lives, would have a chance to cast a vote in November against Ellison, the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee and, for many, a symbol of a brand of liberalism they want nothing to do with.
Ellison a 'gift' for GOP
In fact, many saw Ellison's decision to leave his safe congressional seat and run for attorney general as a pleasant surprise in a midterm election that many Republicans expect will be difficult amid backlash against President Donald Trump.
"Congressman Ellison has a long track record of espousing views we believe are well outside the mainstream for Minnesota," said John Rouleau, executive director of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a Republican-aligned group whose political arm campaigns on behalf of - or against - candidates. "To have a candidate who's aligning himself with the likes of (Vermont U.S. Sen.) Bernie Sanders and (Massachusetts U.S. Sen.) Elizabeth Warren and open borders, it's absolutely a gift for Republicans."
Ben Golnik, a GOP strategist who also serves as executive director of the Minnesota House Republican Caucus, said the the party's growing strength in greater Minnesota made Ellison a natural target.
"I think before the allegations happened, our side was enthused about the idea of Keith Ellison as a statewide candidate because it allowed us to play up the idea that the Democratic Party is the party of Minneapolis far-left progressives, and that's Keith Ellison," Golnik said. "It doesn't appear that it's going away for him. You have a woman who's standing by her story, and we think it's fair to ask people where they stand. I think it's fair game, and I think you'll see people beating the drum."
Here's that drum.
Check out the ads
Four ads are part of a six-figure TV campaign being purchased by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a national super PAC aligned with U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan.
The ads target four Democrats running in Minnesota's most competitive races - races that have long been predicted to attract national money from both sides. The Dems targeted are:
- Dan Feehan, who's running against Republican Jim Hagedorn in southern Minnesota's 1st District, which is being vacated by U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, who's running for governor.
- Angie Craig, who's running against Republican U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis, a rematch of two years ago in the 2nd District, which includes much of the south metro.
- Dean Phillips, who's running against Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen in the west metro-based 3rd District.
- Joe Radinovich, who's running against Pete Stauber for an open seat in the 8th District covering northeast Minnesota.
The 30-second ads are identical, except for the name and image of the Democratic candidate being criticized. "Backing Ellison instead of believing his victim? (Candidate Name) should be ashamed," a female says in each.
On Thursday, the campaign of state Sen. Karin Housley, a Republican hoping to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, released a campaign video titled "Hypocrite" that calls on Smith to "end her silence" on Ellison.
Smith hasn't been quite "silent" on Ellison, calling the allegations "serious."
But the DFL party has handily endorsed him, and, aside from the National Organization of Women calling for him to be removed from the ballot, criticism from the left - or even response - has been relatively muted.
Dems waiting it out?
"Republicans want this to be a referendum on Keith Ellison, not Donald Trump," says Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute.
"We'll see if we're still talking about Keith Ellison come November," Jacobs said, noting that many #MeToo supporters are finding it hard to know how to respond to allegations of emotional abuse, a theme of Karen Monahan's accusations against Ellison. "Unless a video becomes available or more evidence comes out, I think this will get swept up in the smoke of August barbecues. That's what Keith Ellison is trying to do: Wait it out. And Tina Smith and the other Democrats, too."
Several DFL party leaders and supporters contacted for this story declined to comment directly on the Republican strategy.
Ellison also declined to comment for this story. A campaign spokesman issued a short statement that began, "Republicans are desperate to try to make this election about anything other than the issues," before listing several issues and then pivoting to Trump.
It's not just top-of-the-ballot Democratic candidates who are being targeted.
A Minnesota Jobs Coalition tracker confronted state House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman recently in a parking lot.
When asked "Do you believe his accuser?" Hortman doesn't respond beyond saying, "I believe Keith Ellison has addressed those allegations."
The group shared the exchange on Twitter, and Rouleau and Golnik both said it's possible more state House candidates could be tied to Ellison.
Although Jacobs is skeptical that the focus on Ellison will have staying power, he said that could all change if the facts change.
"If there is a video or more allegations ... the DFL is in trouble, and more candidates will have to really distance themselves from Ellison," he said.
That possibility can be seen in some of the most recent responses - since the ads were released.
Craig said that, if the allegations are true, Ellison should be finished: "I am troubled by these allegations. There must be a thorough investigation in a timely manner. We must stand against any act of domestic violence and hold our elected officials to the highest standards. If these allegations are true, this should be disqualifying."
Radinovich issued a similar statement that concludes: "If the allegations against the congressman are found to be true, he should withdraw his candidacy for Attorney General."
Both statements are mute on the question of whom to believe in the meantime - so there's plenty of fodder for Republicans to continue to demand a stronger response.
Race figures in, too
Jacobs adds this to the focus on Ellison: Never forget race.
"In the era of Trump, does it hurt the Republican Party to have the face of a black man accused of abusing women?" he said, noting that the facts are what they are. "Donald Trump has stirred up racial anxiety, and the Republicans are playing into that - and they can reasonably say that's not what they're doing because the allegations are public. It's still the face of a black man."