Quiet insider U.S. Sen. Tina Smith faces bombastic former GOP congressman Jason Lewis

Lewis, Smith have clashed over police reform, racial inequity, SCOTUS

By: - October 30, 2020 12:49 pm

Former GOP congressman Jason Lewis is challenging U.S. Sen. Tina Smith. Photos by Getty/Tina Smith office

Minnesota voters have a stark choice in Tuesday’s election as they decide whether to send U.S. Sen. Tina Smith back to Washington or replace her with the Republican challenger, former U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis. 

The race has become a proxy for the presidential campaign.

Smith is a quiet insider who focuses on using government to help people. Lewis is a talk radio bomb thrower who has embraced President Donald Trump and thinks government mostly gets in the way of prosperity. 

Much discussed issues in the presidential race — like the Supreme Court, policing and COVID-19 relief — have also featured heavily in the Senate race. 

And as different as they are on the issues, Smith and Lewis also offer radically different personalities. 

Smith spent years as a behind-the-scenes political operative, known for a shrewd toughness that earned her the nickname “Velvet Hammer.” Former Gov. Mark Dayton elevated her from chief of staff to lieutenant governor, and then again to the U.S. Senate after the resignation of former Sen. Al Franken. 

Despite nearly three years in the Senate and her second Senate campaign in two years, she remains unknown to one in 10 Minnesotans, according to a recent poll, which may explain the billboards you have seen around the Twin Cities plastered with “Tina Smith” in big letters. 

“I’m about getting things done; I’m about doing things, not making big speeches,” Smith said of her quiet style. 

Lewis may not be that well known by many Minnesotans either, but it’s not for lack of trying. 

He was a conservative talk radio host, infamous among some for outrageous comments about women (“Well, the thing is, can we call anybody a slut?); and Black people (“entitled mentality”); and gay marriage, which he once compared to slavery. 

The former one-term congressman has a razzmatazz media style and takes to Twitter to lob insults at everyone from Smith to the local media — even from his hospital bed this week. 

Lewis had emergency surgery in Hibbing to correct a potentially life-threatening hernia and wasn’t available for a Reformer interview. 

You could be forgiven for thinking this all feels vaguely familiar given the similar storyline of the presidential race, with Trump forced to visit Walter Reed Medical Center after a COVID-19 diagnosis. 

Trumpism is a good fit for Lewis’ preferred medium of talk radio, in which outlandish comments attract and keep listeners. 

Lewis has acknowledged as much: “I was paid to be provocative,” he told Chad Hartman when asked about some of the comments in 2018. “There’s a difference between a politician and a pundit.”

If nothing else, Minnesotans know where Lewis is coming from. He’s logged thousands of hours on the radio, railing against government, taxes, abortion rights, environmental regulation. 

On his website, Lewis says his antipathy to activist government comes from personal experience. 

He says the site of Lewis Motor Supply, the family business, was targeted for a highway project, and the property threatened with eminent domain. 

“After negotiations with government agencies failed to produce a price the family thought adequate for rebuilding, Jason faced the difficult decision of closing a profitable business and eliminating a substantial number of jobs. Lesson learned.”

The adviser becomes the Senator

Smith has spent decades in politics, first as an executive defending women’s reproductive health at Planned Parenthood and then as a close adviser to politicians including Dayton and former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback. But she’s never been in the spotlight or sought it out, even now. And aside from abortion rights, she was always known more for the policy positions of her bosses than her own.  

“I quickly concluded that the best way to win was to be the best senator that I could be,” Smith said in a recent interview. “The entire time that I’ve been in the Senate has been sort of one big job application.” 

Trump took a dig at her low profile during a campaign rally in Bemidji in September. “She does nothing, nothing,” he jeered. “Nobody even knows who the hell she is.” 

Smith, who has a quiet but sharp wit, once cut a digital ad making fun of how often she and Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin are confused for one another in the corridors of Congress.

Smith’s argument to voters is that she’s accomplished a lot even if it hasn’t come with the headlines of Trump or her better known colleague Sen. Amy Klobuchar.  

Smith has worked to cultivate the reputation of a workhorse lawmaker and she readily admits she’s not an orator in the spirit of, say, Barack Obama. Or a professional comedian like her predecessor. 

But she has a secret weapon: Listening. She spent the early years of her career at General Mills and then at her own marketing firm conducting focus groups, where she listened intently to consumers and later voters about what they’re looking for.  

“I truly believe that the best ideas for what is going to make our country work better and our state work better are going to come from people on the ground,” she said.

Smith’s committee assignments include seats on the Senate Agriculture Committee, alongside Klobuchar, as well as the Indian Affairs Committee. 

She has been the primary sponsor of two pieces of legislation that were enacted into law, including the so-called Free COVID-19 Testing Act, a bill to amend insurance coverage requirements to ensure that no person incurs cost sharing when receiving a COVID-19 test. It passed in March as part of a broader COVID-19 response bill approved by Congress.

“It is a time when we really need folks that have demonstrated that they can work across lines of difference to accomplish things for people,” she said. “That’s what I’ve tried hard to do, and I’ve accomplished things even in Washington where there is so much dysfunction.”

The partisanship that has gripped state and national politics was laid bare once again this week when not a single Democrat joined Republicans in voting for the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump’s nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

The nomination —  and the fast-track process shepherded by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — has led to calls by progressives to expand the size of the Supreme Court to counter the now-6-3 conservative majority, which was achieved with the help of a president in Trump who did not receive a majority of the popular vote. 

Biden and running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, have largely dodged the question, rejecting efforts by Republicans to pin the White House-hopeful and other Democrats, including Smith, on the answer. A recent poll found that a majority of Americans did not support expanding the court. 

Smith, who called it premature to make such pronouncements, defended her position. 

“The reason I think that it is premature is just because we really don’t know what is going to happen,” she said. “We don’t know what the lay of the land is going to look like in January. I don’t know what the right thing to do is because we’re not there yet.”

Lewis attacked any expansion of the court: “We will turn from a constitutional republic to a Banana Republic,” he told KTOE. 

Smith said the court expansion debate is a sideshow from what she called an attempt by Republicans to distract from their record of appointing more than 200 conservative justices, largely white and male, to federal judgeships. 

“Mitch McConnell and the Republicans and my opponent are trying to shift attention away from what they’re doing,” Smith said. “They held up Obama appointees, stopped him from exercising his constitutional responsibility, held up the Merrick Garland nomination in order to do what they’re doing, which is to pack the court with conservative judges that are anti-choice.”

In the final weeks of the campaign, Lewis and Smith have most frequently clashed on their views regarding law enforcement and racial injustice. In recent debates, Lewis has claimed that Smith supports progressive calls to “defund the police,” blaming Democrats for the sharp scrutiny police officers have come under since the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. 

Smith vigorously rejects that characterization, saying she does not support such efforts and instead prefers additional police reforms enacted, including a federal use of force standard and a national registry of police misconduct

Smith said her position on police reform was informed from her time serving as chief of staff to Rybak, who had oversight of the Minneapolis Police Department. In light of Floyd’s death, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights launched a civil rights investigation going back a decade. 

Lewis also has criticized Smith for voting against COVID-19 relief bills in the Senate, votes she defended saying previous bills put forth in the GOP-controlled chamber did fully address the need. She said she would continue fighting for a robust COVID-19 relief bill that she said would help states like Minnesota, currently facing a $4.7 billion budget deficit. 

“Democrats,” she said, “have been so focused on getting help to state and local governments, because the last thing we want to be doing in this moment is to have Minnesota and Duluth and Minneapolis and small communities all over the state be laying off public service workers in order to balance their budget.

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.

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