Minnesotan viewers of the January candidates' forum with state Senator Terri Bonoff and two other Democratic challengers for the 3rd Congressional District seat could be forgiven for thinking they'd seen this movie before. Bonoff, a two-term state representative with strong institutional backing, found herself in a heated back-and-forth with two male opponents, each determined to take their insurgent candidacy all the way to Washington. The scene, of course, was an off-off-Broadway rendition of the widely watched debate between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards, which had taken place in New Hampshire just two weeks prior.
The down and dirtiest line the Illinois senator could muster against Clinton was "You're likeable enough, Hillary," but in Minnesota, the insurgent Ashwin Madia -- a 30-year-old Iraq War veteran running on a "change" platform -- proved more of a pit bull than an Iowa-era Obama: "There are entrenched interests in Washington right now," he said, with cold emphasis. "Working families need a fighter, someone who's not afraid to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘No more.’ … That is where I shine."
Bonoff, seeming to channel Hillary Clinton's then-frustrations, rejoined haltingly: "I'm a fighter, too," she said, before stressing her connections and relative longevity as reasons she could beat the Republican candidate. "I know Erik Paulsen, and my record stands up against Erik Paulsen. … In the end you know what? I'm gonna win. I have a lot of friends in the Senate." Though Bonoff battled to keep up her front-runner's appearance, as with Clinton, it was no use. "People looked at me and saw Hillary," she recalls now. "It was very frustrating." Madia's fresh face electrified the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party base, and his organizing advantage in district caucuses allowed him to neutralize Bonoff's lead in, yes, superdelegates, and seize a victory on the ninth ballot at the party's state convention. (The crowd capped the drama with competing chants of "Terr-reee, Terr-reee," and "Win-Ash-Win. Win-Ash-Win.")
One month from Election Day 2008, the 3rd District race still looks a lot like the national slugfest in microcosm. Madia is now running hard against Paulsen -- a well-liked conservative former state House majority leader -- trailing by a slim margin in a district that has gone Republican for nearly 50 years. Paulsen is conservative on social issues, has promised fiscal restraint, and has made conciliatory noises regarding the environment. He's also well traveled in the Middle East and Asia. (His campaign did not respond to requests for comment.) "He's honest and people like working with him," says Bonoff, who now strongly supports Madia and is working for Obama, "but everybody recognizes how conservative his record is. … When it's time to vote he has stuck with the conservative principles."
Madia, an attorney of Indian parentage who served tours as a Marine Corps lawyer in Japan and Iraq, has faced his own criticisms about youth and inexperience. One Paulsen supporter says, "I just don't know why he wouldn't run for state House right now. His experience level and age are more in line with a state House position."
Many analyses list the suburban district as host to one of the few genuine "toss up" races -- in a toss-up state -- which has garnered lots of outside attention and money. Madia has raised nearly $300,000 from the progressive advocacy group Act Blue, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is backing Madia with over $1 million, while the National Republican Congressional Committee has offered special financial assistance to Paulsen. Both candidates are spending heavily into the home stretch.
But Madia (who ran his entire primary campaign without TV ads) is, by most accounts, plain outworking his opposition -- criss-crossing the district every week. He is also subverting norms of party and patriotism in a state that's trending blue, making him a marquee example of the new face of the Democratic Party.
For one, his military service is a key underpinning of his approach to U.S. policy. The increasing diverse face of the armed services, along with the chorus of dissent that has grown during the war in Iraq, has eroded Republican supremacy on defense. Anti-war Iraq veterans stormed the GOP convention, and more military personnel have donated to the Obama campaign than any other candidate in this cycle. Madia, along with prominent young Democrats like Rep. Patrick Murphy, Navy Seal Michael Lumpkin, and Army Maj. Tammy Duckworth, represent the "Next Generation" Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have come out in support of a progressive platform this year. "I'm honored to be running with other veterans," says Madia. "I think if we'd had a few more people like that in the run-up to the war in Iraq they might have asked some more appropriate questions."
Madia also frequently emphasizes his story as "the son of immigrants" on the stump. This classic American biography has allowed him to tap into commonalities with a diverse coalition of Minnesotans, from "national security moms" to fiscally conservative older voters. But, as much as their underdog electoral fortunes and atypical backgrounds recommend comparison, Ashwin Madia is no Barack Obama. His pugnacious turn at the January debate reveals just one of many differences between his party's standard bearer and himself.
A few stand out. For one thing, Madia voted for Bush in 2000. So he doesn't get to tour the counties of Minnesota decrying "Bush-Paulsen" philosophies or policies (though he is crystal clear about his crusade to “help more Americans prosper”). But in Minnesota, and especially in the 3rd district, known for ticket-splitting, this confession brings with it a certain street cred. In fact, when asked how his fighting-Dem credentials would square with independents and moderates, he cited his conversion narrative (the cause, he said, is two words and a letter: "George W. Bush").
For another, he's conflicted about Iraq. "It's sort of a cruel situation we're in," he tells me. During his time in the Marines, he marked "the bravery and the decency of the people that I worked with there, both marines and soldiers and also Iraqis themselves who were working very hard to get their legal system up and running." As a result, he believes the U.S. must find a sustainable exit strategy that truly honors Iraqi freedom. "I think we need to find a way to end this war, but I think we do bear responsibility not to leave the place in a total mess," he says.
Another distinction is Madia's engagement with the Indian American community in Minnesota and beyond. The fast-growing demographic, made up of first and second generation immigrants and their children, is beginning to assert a political voice in the U.S., voting, running, and contributing across party lines. "There's a lot of informal networks in the community that are fairly strong," says Prem Shunmugavelu, a political activist on the board of the Indian American Leadership Initiative (IALI). Madia's run unleashed "a lot of energy that he's been able to drive up in these communities." Word travels farther via newspapers like India Abroad, which has featured Madia. Asian Americans across the country have contributed to the 3rd District race; one in five of Madia's big donors, who gave a total of $160,000, are Indian; and, says Shunmugavelu, "there was a significant increase in Indian American delegates out there during the primary to support him." Kishan Putta, a Washington organizer for Indians for McCain, adds that conservative counterparts to IALI have also formed, and that the Indian population boom in states like Virginia, Ohio, Minnesota, and New Jersey could mark a huge change in the future of American politics.
Of course, parallels with Obama do resonate at times. The youngish Madia doesn't speak like a Minnesotan ("I'm not really a politician or whatever," he shrugs), but his neutral, matter-of-fact diction offers an American message that often sounds like that other Midwesterner: "I have a lot of respect for Rep. Paulsen," he says. "I just think some of his views mirror exactly what we've been doing over the last eight years, and I think we need to change." As the race moves toward Nov. 4, populism and nonpartisanship are the watchwords of the day. And -- perhaps less like the presidential contest -- that spirit has prompted gracious words from Bonoff. "I am so proud of Ashwin," she says winningly. "I think he is just perfect for this district."