U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer is the kind of guy who can survey the wreckage of a tornado — or a Trump — and smile at the new construction his mind’s eye sees.
Republicans “have the greatest change taking place of either party right now,” an upbeat Emmer said while paying a call on the Star Tribune Editorial Board last week. “Is it pretty? No. But it’s great. What an opportunity!”
A sense of possibility is a fine trait for a leader in Minnesota’s Republican Party to possess just now. So are several other unexpected traits that the 55-year-old former trial lawyer and legislator has exhibited since his election to Congress from Minnesota’s Sixth District in 2014 — resilience, adaptability and a knack for durability, to name a few.
Those characteristics make Emmer not just a likely survivor of the Trumpian storm, but also a likely builder of the political force that emerges in its wake — whether it passes on Nov. 8 or some years hence.
Emmer is the only Minnesota member of Congress on this fall’s ballot who says he’ll be voting for Donald Trump. His decision is that of a lifelong hockey player who values team loyalty. He’s on the Republican team, and he vowed before the nomination was won that he would support his team’s presidential nominee. He’s keeping his word.
No good team player predicts defeat before the game is over. Emmer didn’t. But he wasted no time at the Star Tribune defending the Trumpian words and deeds that have triggered the defections, by one count, of 53 Republican members of Congress.
Instead — without faulting Trump by name — he talked about the more inclusive Republican Party he believes can be built after this presidential election is in the history books. It will be a party that will emphasize economic opportunity and national security, both issues with potential to enlarge Republican appeal. Those are the topics constituents raise most often as he campaigns in his north-suburbs-plus-St. Cloud district, he said. I counted it as telling that guns, abortion and same-sex marriage were not on his list.
But a new GOP take on issues won’t be as important as new practices of politics and governance, he maintained.
“If you’re truly going to effect change, you have to attract people to you. You can’t push them away,” he said. “You have to inspire them to come to your side.”
His example: Instead of describing the low-income half of the nation as “takers,” as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously did at a fundraiser in 2012, Emmer wants his party to support their aspirations. He believes low-income Americans can be persuaded that the Republican Party is their ally as they reach higher.
His outreach ideas extend to new Americans. While he shares some of Trump’s zeal for stricter vetting of refugees before they are admitted to this country, Emmer also wants Republicans to side with immigrants as they pursue the American dream. He decried anti-immigrant fearmongering: “Lazy politicians will use any opportunity to foment the fear, to drive the intensity, because it benefits them. But it destroys the community.”
He understands well the political risk associated with taking that position in today’s GOP. He faced a primary challenger this year who took a hard anti-immigration line. But his easy victory on Aug. 9 could be a sign that a more immigration-friendly GOP party can emerge more quickly than the “Build the Wall” chants suggest.
Emmer faulted both parties for the excessive claim a few wealthy donors make on both the lawmaking agenda and politicians’ calendars. The attention such donors demand deprives members of Congress of time that would be better spent selling ideas to the public. It also contributes to an arrogance that allows elected officials to devalue their voters’ desires. It allows them to think “they have all the answers and they can just pound them through.”
Arrogance of that sort eventually produces a backlash, Emmer said. “People are very frustrated. They are asking for something that elected officials in the Republican Party have either misunderstood or completely failed to delivery for quite some time … .The perception is, you go to Washington or St. Paul and put your political career ahead of them.”
Enter Donald Trump.
But in his wake, I’d guess, there will be Tom Emmer. He’s a politician who can draw from the hard knock of a 2010 gubernatorial race to attest that arrogance isn’t nearly as politically effective as engagement and inspiration. He says he’s learned that positive relationships on both sides of the political aisle are the bridge to effectiveness, and that “it’s much easier to get across the bridge once you’ve built it than after you’ve blown it up.”
He says he knows he’s been given a second chance. He aims to make the most of it. That attitude plus a strong first term in Congress should assure him a significant role in the post-Trump GOP.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.