Minnesota Republicans who didn’t support Donald Trump tried on Wednesday to get used to the idea that the billionaire controversy magnet will be their party’s presidential candidate, with some still openly defiant but others starting to make their peace with him.
For some, the prospect of Trump leading the Republican Party has them openly contemplating what once seemed unthinkable — voting in November for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner.
With Ohio Gov. John Kasich dropping out of the Republican race Wednesday, following Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who bowed out Tuesday night, the GOP’s anti-Trump wing no longer has a candidate to rally around.
“I don’t think we have much choice in the situation,” said Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota Law School professor who was associate White House counsel for two years under Republican President George W. Bush.
Painter said Wednesday he still holds out hope that Trump would somehow be blocked from the nomination, or that a viable third-party candidate will emerge. Short of that, he’ll pull the lever for Clinton.
More Trump foes in the Minnesota Republican Party interviewed for this story said they wouldn’t be able vote for Clinton. But their fears of a Clinton victory aren’t enough to overcome their disdain for Trump.
“He has a long history of demeaning comments toward women,” said Luke Hellier, a GOP activist from Lakeville who has worked for legislative and congressional Republicans in Minnesota. “I don’t think I’d be doing my duty to my daughters if I were to vote for Donald Trump.”
To date, Trump has found almost no support among prominent Minnesota Republicans.
But on Wednesday, a number of GOP state legislators who would have to share the ticket with him in November were moving toward acceptance.
“I’m getting there. Don’t rush me,” said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake. Her Republican colleague, Sen. Dave Senjem of Rochester, expressed hope that Trump over the next six months would soften his rough edges.
“I think he’ll clean it up, and I think he’ll be fine by November,” Senjem said. “Hillary has credibility problems, too.”
A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll last week found nearly two-thirds of Republicans sampled wanted a different candidate than Trump. Trump also did poorly in Minnesota’s March presidential caucus, finishing third.
If Trump fails to ignite more excitement among Minnesota Republicans, it could have consequences for GOP candidates down the ballot. The party is looking to hold onto two suburban congressional districts, maintain its majority in the state House and dent the DFL majority in the state Senate.
“Top of the ticket always affects down-ballot races,” said Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, who unseated a DFL incumbent in 2010. Chamberlain said he’d vote for the Republican nominee, even Trump, but acknowledged he’s not enthusiastic.
“Is he principled? I don’t know,” Chamberlain said.
Rep. Anna Wills, R-Apple Valley, said she thinks voters in her district would judge her on her own merits.
“I work hard to present who I am, what I stand for and what I’m working for. I feel confident about my race no matter who’s at the top of the ticket,” said Wills. She’ll vote for Trump: “He’s a better choice than Hillary Clinton.”
Some GOP legislators from swing districts didn’t want to talk about Trump on Wednesday.
“I just want to say today that we’re focusing on what we have to do the rest of this [legislative] session,” Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Lake Elmo, said when approached on the House floor. “I haven’t really given it a lot of thought.”
House Speaker Kurt Daudt also resisted Trump questions.
“I don’t think you can say I will support him or not support him,” Daudt said. “I’m not saying either one. Our focus right now is just not on the presidential race.”
Daudt later added: “I’ll be voting Republican in the fall.”
Minnesota’s three GOP members of Congress declined interview requests. A spokesman for Second District Rep. John Kline, who isn’t seeking re-election, released a short statement: “Kline intends to support the GOP nominee.”
Rep. Erik Paulsen, facing what’s expected to be a tough challenge from a DFL state senator in the Third Congressional District, also responded via statement from a spokesman. “Like a lot of voters, Erik has problems with both Trump and Clinton but expects to vote for the nominee,” said his campaign manager, John-Paul Yates.
A similar statement came from a spokesman for Tom Emmer, Minnesota’s third Republican U.S. representative: “Congressman Emmer has long said that regardless of who wins he would support the GOP presidential nominee, and that stands as true today as it was when this race began,” it said.
There are already signs that DFLers will try to use Trump against their Republican opponents. Angie Craig, the DFL congressional candidate in the Second District, issued a statement Wednesday making her intentions clear as Republicans prepare to endorse a candidate to succeed Kline.
“Whoever wins CD2 Republican nod will replicate Trump’s toxic policies,” Craig said. She said voters in the largely suburban district don’t want leaders who “hurl insults that only serve to continue to divide us.”
Minnesota Republicans who don’t like Trump often cite his penchant for outrageous or insulting statements, or fears that he’s not a true conservative. Some sense something more ominous lurking in some of his comments and positions.
“I have a lot of family ties to Germany, including relatives who still live there, and their dalliance with authoritarianism didn’t go very well,” said Jennifer Gumbel, the Republican mayor of LeRoy, a town of about 1,000 people on the Iowa border. “There’s too much he’s said that’s flirting with authoritarianism and with my background, I can’t vote for that.”
State Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington has been one of the state GOP’s most vociferous Trump critics. In an interview with the Star Tribune in March, he called Trump “an incompetent, corrupt con artist.” He repeatedly predicted Trump would never be the GOP nominee.
By Wednesday, Garofalo had clammed up about Trump.
“I have no comment at this time,” he said.