Rep. Walz presses on as voters sour on Congress

Published 10:12 am Friday, May 2, 2014

Mark Zdechlik

MPR News, 90.1FM

Mankato — Democrat or Republican? Party doesn’t really matter to Pegeen Rozeske this year. She just wants new politicians in Congress.

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“I will always look for an alternative,” she said as she chatted at Mankato’s Wagon Wheel Café. “If there are enough choices, I vote the incumbent out.” Yes, that includes the congressman she says she voted for, Democratic Rep. Tim Walz.

“Throw the bums out” is a sentiment vexing Walz and Democrats across the country this spring as they try to hold their majority in Congress. Historically, in years where the president is not up for election, voters tend to pick candidates from the president’s opposition.

Republicans hope to press that mid-term dissatisfaction by leveraging President Barack Obama’s low approval ratings and skepticism over his Affordable Care Act against Democrats.

Observers say Walz might not be as at-risk as the GOP thinks. Walz, though, isn’t taking views like Rozeske’s lightly.

“I can understand her frustrations,” he said in an interview at his campaign headquarters in downtown Mankato. “I’m as frustrated as she is because I have to be there. The difference is there are some of us who are getting things done.”

Walz has represented southern Minnesotans in Washington since 2007. The former high school history teacher and football coach is seeking a fifth term in the House.

He said he’s confident district voters know he’s one of them. “They know how I stand. They know my ability to build coalitions and get things done.”

Walz points to the new Mississippi River bridge project in Winona where construction will start this summer and new veterans’ clinics in Mankato and Albert Lea as examples of how his clout aids the region.

He does not hide his support for the Affordable Care Act. Instead, Walz calls it a work in process and insists the law is an improvement to the nation’s health care system.

“I think moving towards better and ongoing solutions it better than solidifying and saying we’re going to go back to a failed system because we don’t like the changes you made, because they’re causing unrest,” he said. “You always know when you make changes there’s going to be some of that.”

Walz’s challenger, Republican Aaron Miller, said the 1st District congressman is vulnerable for many reasons, including his support for the Affordable Care Act.

“I think it’s not up to Congressman Walz to tell the voters of southern Minnesota what insurance policy is best for their family,” Miller said.

Like Walz, Miller is an Army veteran. He’s also an account manager for a medical biotechnology company. He has never before run for public office.

Miller says private sector competition is the solution to increasing access to health care, adding the economy would be stronger if Washington put fewer restrictions on business.

“We’re not talking about just being a party of ‘no’ down here,” he said. “I’m talking about options — options to start growing the economy, options for replacing Obamacare and certainly options to get wasteful government spending under control.”

Despite the Democrats’ potential problems in this political cycle, Walz may be more secure than Republicans think, said Minnesota State University Mankato political science professor Joe Kunkel.

“He relates really well to ordinary people,” Kunkel said. “The farmers, the doctors, the educators in this district — he’s able to relate to them.”

Miller told MPR News he decided run for Congress because he was concerned about the growing national debt.

But out campaigning for support, Miller has reportedly said he was running, in part, because he was upset one of his daughters was being taught evolution in her public school.

Miller now says he has no problem with evolution being taught in public schools and that his past remarks were “merely an analogy” to make the case for more local control of education. He calls the evolution issue a “distraction” and says he’ll focus on bringing private sector solutions to Washington.

Kunkel, though, says Miller’s comments were controversial and while the talk about evolution might endear Miller to social conservatives it could drive away moderate Republicans, like those who work in the medical industry in Rochester.

“I don’t know you’re going to get elected to Congress in the 1st District campaigning against evolution,” Kunkel added.

Money may also be a disadvantage. At the end of March, Miller had a lot less money than Walz to promote his approach, $43,000 compared to Walz’s more than $400,000.