Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith wins second term, beating GOP challenger Jason Lewis

©Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith was leading former Republican Rep. Jason Lewis in early voting Tuesday in the Senate race. - Glen Stubbe/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS

MINNEAPOLIS — Democrat Tina Smith, appointed nearly three years ago as Al Franken’s successor in the U.S. Senate, won her first full term from voters Tuesday and defeated Republican challenger Jason Lewis in a race that could help decide the balance of power in Washington.

A former Planned Parenthood executive and lieutenant governor, Smith won a special election in 2018 to serve out Franken’s term.

Lewis, a former congressman running as a staunch ally of President Donald Trump, worked for years as a conservative radio talk show host with a large following. But he lost his U.S. House seat in 2018 to Democrat Angie Craig.

Smith’s approach in Washington has been low-key, working quietly until recently. In October, she offered a Senate floor speech defending abortion rights as she opposed Trump’s nomination of conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the U.S. Supreme Court.

She branded attempts to limit abortion as sexist interference that suggests women are not smart enough to decide what is best for themselves.

In one of the defining issues of the race, Lewis backed Barrett’s nomination, saying Trump’s pick would interpret laws and not try to make them.

Smith worked as chief of staff for Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, until she won election as lieutenant governor in 2014. In the Senate, she has voted along party lines on most issues. But she also worked with Republican colleagues on bills involving drug prices. Smith’s support for Minnesota farmers as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee earned her the endorsement of the Minnesota Farm Bureau.

Lewis appeared with Trump at several campaign events and offered an agenda that mirrors the president’s criticism of temporary stay-at-home orders, business closures and other state-mandated restrictions to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Lewis also embraces Trump’s strict immigration restrictions and import tariffs.

Like Republicans up and down the ballot, Lewis has sought to define himself as a law-and-order candidate. He has called Minnesota’s Senate race “a choice between law and order and violence and anarchy.” He has warned of “mob rule” if he loses. He also has laid out his support for law enforcement in the wake of the civil unrest following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.

Smith did not join Minneapolis City Council leaders calling to defund the police. Instead, she advocated for law enforcement reforms. She also condemned property destruction and looting that accompanied some protests of police brutality.

Smith also focused on solutions to the surging pandemic that has infected 157,000 and killed 2,500 people in the state, damaging the economy and driving up unemployment. In one television ad Smith promised to “move hell or high water to do what it takes to help my fellow Minnesotans.”

Lewis campaigned against Gov. Tim Walz’s mandatory lockdowns and restrictions on group gatherings, which he said further smothered the economy.

Lewis said Smith and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden would “sentence every American to four years in the basement as they continue to cower in fear over the virus.”

Smith has pledged to support the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, along with its protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions.

As a member of the U.S. House, Lewis voted against the health care law. He also backed Trump’s plan to kill the health care reform law and replace it, though the GOP has passed no alternative ahead of the election.

Smith has led in most polls of the race, though Lewis told supporters that the race tightened in recent weeks. The Democrat collected roughly $14.9 million in campaign contributions, well over twice the roughly $5.4 million raised by Lewis, though he has benefited from heavy spending in the state by the Trump campaign.

Smith received roughly $12 million in individual donations. The balance came from political action committee donations from a spectrum of Minnesota labor and businesses sectors.

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©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)