WASHINGTON – Anti-Islamic sentiment is seeping into Minnesota's congressional races, creating the first signs of tension for candidates delicately trying to balance emerging Muslim populations with voters concerned about national security.
"I think the economy is still Number 1, but this one is a pretty close second on the Republican side, anyway," said Jason Lewis, a Republican running to win U.S. Rep. John Kline's Second Congressional District seat.
The issue received fresh attention nationally when GOP front-runner Donald Trump recently called for Muslims to be banned from entering the United States. Many Republican Party leaders shunned the statement, calling it un-American and not representative of the nation's values.
But the sentiment resonated with a sizable cross section of American voters, as a flash of terrorist attacks and violence around the world spurred anxiety about homeland security.
Trump pushed higher in polls and won the New Hampshire primary last week. Two-thirds of Republicans casting ballots there said they supported a temporary ban on noncitizen Muslims entering the United States, according to exit polls.
Jim Hagedorn, the Republican running against Democratic Rep. Tim Walz in the First Congressional District, has called for a "timeout" from all refugee programs and recently jabbed Walz for signing onto an "un-Minnesotan" advertising campaign critical of anti-Islamic sentiments.
Hagedorn called Walz's stance an effort to appear "politically correct" and said he has failed to protect Americans from Islamic terrorists.
Efforts in St. Cloud
GOP Rep. Tom Emmer, who represents Minnesota's Sixth Congressional District, is a co-founder of the Somalia Caucus with Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, who represents Minneapolis. Emmer has worked to reach out to the sizable Somali population in St. Cloud and to solve the ongoing problems surrounding remittances, when Somali residents send money to their native country from the United States.
Emmer says his outreach is nothing new.
"As Republicans, we believe our ideas are the right ideas to help people succeed," Emmer said. "The problem that we have as a party is how to get that message to people."
But Emmer has a Republican primary opponent in this year's election, a Sauk Rapids woman named AJ Kern. She said the congressional district is in a "death spiral" because of the influx of "English language learners."
"We cannot screen potential immigrants based on their religious preferences," she said via e-mail. "We should be screening based on country of origin, taking into consideration potential for terroristic threats."
Emmer said he has consistently voted both to make it harder for refugees to enter the United States and to officially declare war on the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
'Securing the border'
Lewis, who is in a primary battle for the GOP endorsement in the Second District, said he would not go as far as Trump, but does support certain immigration moratoriums and the need to look at refugee bans from certain parts of the world.
"It comes down to securing the border and the U.N. refugee admissions program. … Those kinds of issues are percolating at the top when it comes to securing the homeland," he said.
A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll conducted last month found that 54 percent of respondents do not believe government should temporarily ban Muslims from other countries from entering the U.S.
Minnesotans were split along party lines over their views on a temporary ban. Seven in 10 Democrats said Muslims from other countries should not be barred from entering the country. Among Republicans, 38 percent held the same view.
Campaigns for Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are trying to reach out to Minnesota's 150,000 Muslims to convert them into a reliable Democratic voting bloc.
In December, the same week Trump offered his proposal to ban Muslims, Clinton delivered a speech in Minneapolis outlining her counterterrorism strategy and ways she would help Muslim-American communities fight radicalization.
"She did reach out to us, she met with imams," said Farhio Khalif, president of the Minneapolis-based Voice of East African Women and a Clinton supporter. "I haven't seen anybody running for office who has done all of that."
The Sanders campaign said it is looking to start a religious outreach group in Minnesota.
The discourse among some of the Republican congressional hopefuls disturbs Mohamud Noor, the president of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota. He has seen the attitudes worsen and intensify in light of what has been said on the presidential campaign trail.
"It's having a ripple effect. The candidates feel like they can say whatever they want," Noor said. "It's a problem for me and it's going to harm my kids, and in the long term we need to find common ground."
Ellison, who was the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, said Islamophobia been an issue in his races for more than a decade, but he senses a different tone this year. This partly inspired him to reach out to some of his Republican friends in the business community to launch the advertising campaign.
"I have friends who are Muslim Republicans and they have to put up with some of these people," he said. "No one promoting this stuff is going to benefit from it. It's not going to make anyone vote for them. This is not a Republican value, this is not an American value."
Some Republicans are working to make inroads in the local Islamic communities.
When Dan Severson lost his first bid to become secretary of state in 2010, he was surprised how poorly he did in Ramsey and Hennepin counties.
Severson spearheaded immigrant outreach on behalf of the state Republican Party. He was determined to break into communities of color, areas where the party has generally been weak.
"Each community has to be treated individually," Severson said. "That's where the relationships come in and that's where the Republican Party could definitely do better."
Star Tribune contractor Michael Brodkorb contributed to this story.