Political headwinds roused by an unpopular president. A dramatic fundraising deficit. Another statewide sweep by Democrats. Minnesota Republicans found themselves asking a familiar question after another series of election blows this week: How can they appeal to voters statewide?
Jennifer Carnahan, the chairwoman of the Minnesota Republican Party, said she’s aiming to finalize her party’s strategy for 2020 by Dec. 1. Central to that effort will be solving the puzzle of how to field candidates who can appeal to both its increasingly rural, Donald Trump-supporting base while also winning back the suburban voters who proved decisive to Minnesota’s Democratic gains in 2018.
“There’s just too much population in the seven-county metro area to get blown away there and then still manage to somehow come up with the votes needed statewide,” said Gina Countryman, who runs the Minnesota Action Network, which worked to elect Minnesota Republicans this year.
Suburban voters proved decisive in flipping the state House back to Democratic control, and voters in suburban congressional districts rejected Republican U.S. Reps. Erik Paulsen and Jason Lewis. Republicans running for statewide offices netted similar vote totals, each falling short on the strength of high Democratic turnout in Minneapolis, St. Paul and surrounding communities.
Different Republicans have different views of what happened this year. Ron Carey, a former state party chairman, said he thought former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s loss to Jeff Johnson in the Republican primary for governor was decisive in foiling Republican hopes. Pawlenty was the last Republican to win statewide in Minnesota, when he narrowly won re-election in 2006.
“I believe on primary day we gave up on any realistic chance of succeeding this fall in the governor’s race,” Carey said. “And, unfortunately, that being a marquee race, that trickles down to the rest of the ticket.”
Major business groups, typically the most reliable source of campaign funds for Republicans nationwide, focused their efforts this year not on Johnson’s statewide bid but rather on defending the GOP majority in the state House and winning a special election to retain the state Senate. It wasn’t enough: Republicans also lost their state House majority, almost entirely due to suburban districts snatched by Democrats.
“I think there certainly was a focus on the House kind of as a backstop because we had to make a choice,” said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which has worked to support Republican legislative candidates. “We just knew the resources we were going to have.”
Weaver, who served as chief of staff to Pawlenty for a time, said the former governor would have had a better shot at raising money. But he’s not sure that would have been enough this year “given what happened here in Minnesota.”
At least in part thanks to its dominance in recent elections, Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer-Labor Party has managed to build a consistent fundraising advantage over Republicans. State Rep. Matt Dean, a Republican from Dellwood who did not run for re-election this year, pointed to the Democratic-aligned group Alliance for Better Minnesota’s $4.1 million ad campaign attacking Johnson for his views on health care, in ads that he and supporters said were inaccurate. Dean, and other Minnesota Republicans, said the GOP’s inability to keep up with the DFL’s war chest hindered candidates’ ability to punch back in any way that resonated with voters across the state.
“You can lose the money battle and win the war in an election, but you can’t get wiped out 4-1 or more and expect to win statewide races,” said Dean, who mounted a bid for governor but dropped out in January and put his support behind Johnson.
But Carey sees a Catch-22 in the party’s sustained inability to win statewide. It hinders the ability of party leaders to recruit appealing candidates, he said, and it gives donors reason to not support Republican campaigns in Minnesota.
“People keep seeing their investments not produce results,” Carey said. “Look, businesspeople are investors. … It gets harder and harder for them to go back to the plate and say ‘I’m going to take another swing at this.’ ”
Carnahan, the state GOP chairwoman, described this year’s election losses in the suburbs as “a vote against every single Republican on that ballot” and a “visceral, negative reaction” toward President Donald Trump. The president rallied in support of eventual outstate congressional winners Jim Hagedorn and Pete Stauber during the campaign, but Trump didn’t appear to help the party’s statewide candidates. Both Johnson and state Sen. Karin Housley, who lost a special election against U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, embraced Trump’s agenda and warned that Democrats would undermine it.
“We’re the only state in the country that has a divided state Legislature,” said Amy Koch, who managed Housley’s campaign. “Those are pretty stark lines where Trump is popular and where he isn’t.”
Carnahan is still optimistic that Trump can build on his 2016 performance in Minnesota — he won in 78 of 87 counties, but he narrowly lost the state to Hillary Clinton — and actually be a boon for state Republicans.
Sheri Auclair, a Republican activist from Wayzata and vice chairwoman of the Third Congressional District’s Republican Party, was a big Trump booster in 2016. She is hopeful about Trump’s chances in the state but less so about the suburbs swinging back to Republicans.
“We’re a blue state, period. Done. We’re California,” said Auclair, who added she now plans to split her time between Minnesota and Florida once her son goes off to college.
Still, other Republicans suggest that tailoring a message to their specific constituents is a better strategy than relying on the president to carry them to victory.
“We need to be more local with our message,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, whose Sixth District win made him the party’s senior-most member of Minnesota’s congressional delegation. “It’s got to be more about the candidate running rather than a referendum on some national individual. I truly believe in representing the people who hired you and going directly to them with your message.”