President Donald Trump is confident he can defy recent political history and turn Minnesota red in 2020.
He said so in June, telling a Duluth rally that snagging the state he came within 44,765 votes of winning would be “really, really easy” next time.
Trump’s campaign team considers Minnesota — which hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential nominee since Richard Nixon in 1972 — a 2020 battleground.
Strategists in both parties say they might be right, and some early forecasts put the state in the tossup column.
“There’s a misperception of Minnesota as relatively safe territory” for Democrats, said Carrie Lucking, manager of Tim Walz’s winning campaign for governor, one of a handful of big wins by Democrats in the recent midterm elections. “That is problematic from a resource perspective” because the state party will need help fending off a Trump offensive.
Gregg Peppin, who helped Republican Jim Hagedorn win Walz’s U.S. House seat in southern Minnesota, thinks the state is in play. The outcome will depend on “whether the visceral dislike [of Trump] motivates people to go to the polls or a visceral like of him motivates people,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s aspirations could dramatically reshape the next presidential race here. The Minnesota Democrat was just overwhelmingly re-elected to a third term, and her name is among those generating early buzz. Publicly, she’s not talking about any 2020 plans, but she also hasn’t ruled anything out.
The results of the midterm election provided plenty of solace for Democrats who want to keep Minnesota blue — but also some encouragement for Trump’s ambitions.
Voters sent two Democratic U.S. senators back to Washington and chose a Democratic governor. A shift away from the GOP by suburban voters gave Democrats control of the state House and flipped two U.S. House seats.
Demographic changes also could benefit Democrats here and across the U.S.: National exit polls found that 28 percent of voters were nonwhites, a record for a midterm election.
But although Democrats took over the U.S. House, the partisan makeup of the Minnesota delegation — five Democrats and three Republicans — didn’t change. Republicans lost those two suburban U.S. House seats but won in Minnesota’s Eighth and First districts, an indication that Trump’s support remains solid outside the Twin Cities and their suburbs.
Democratic strategist Paul Begala, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, and Virginia-based Republican Whit Ayres, the pollster for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, used identical language as they assessed what the Nov. 6 results mean.
Divisions among voters have “accelerated” since Trump was elected, both said.
Rural areas and small towns “became further entrenched in the Republican Party and large suburban counties went exactly the other direction,” Ayres said. Now, he said, the GOP must expand support in population centers by appealing to “people who are more diverse, younger and less likely to be old and white.”
Democrats’ challenge is the reverse. “I want [them] to try to add not only to the gains they’re making in suburbs and among women in cities, but to add votes on the Iron Range,” Begala said. He’s optimistic because he doesn’t think Trump’s policy agenda will satisfy those voters in 2020.
A look behind results in two Minnesota counties illustrates the current dynamics and conflicting trends as attention shifts to the next campaign.
Koochiching County on the northern edge of the state voted twice for Barack Obama, then swung to Trump, who carried it by 19.85 points. This year, it was back to blue but just barely blue, supporting U.S. Sen. Tina Smith by 2.5 points and Walz by a half-point.
Koochiching backed Democratic state Rep. Rob Ecklund of International Falls, who won a third term. But Republican Pete Stauber won in the Eighth Congressional District, a traditionally Democratic stronghold that includes the county.
“If we don’t figure out how to speak to voters, some of us might be the last Democrats to represent” districts like his, Ecklund said. To prevail in his area in 2020, he said, the Democratic presidential candidate must avoid Hillary Clinton’s missteps and “be willing to embrace and work for the Rust Belt.”
Terry Stone, Koochiching County GOP chairman, said that many people thought state House districts in his area “were ripe and rapidly shifting to the red,” but that didn’t happen this year. Whether it does in 2020, he said, depends largely on Trump’s policies.
Southern Minnesota’s Nicollet County flipped from red to blue on Nov. 6, too. It voted twice for Obama and backed Trump by just 3 points in 2016. This year, it chose Walz and Smith by double digits and sent Democrat Jeff Brand of St. Peter to the state House. Yet the First Congressional District, which includes the county, elected Hagedorn.
The new Republican congressman “wasn’t afraid to say that he planned on going to Washington to partner with Trump,” said Nicollet County GOP chairman Peter Trocke. He expects Trump to win again because although St. Peter and North Mankato favor Democrats, “the rest of the county is dark red.”
Brand got a contrary message as he knocked on voters’ doors. “I heard plenty of people say, ‘I’ll vote for you if you’ll get rid of Trump,’ ” he said.
Lucking, Walz’s campaign manager, said that some of this year’s congressional races, including those won by Stauber and Hagedorn, revealed deeper divisions than statewide campaigns did.
The lesson for Democrats: “Better listening to the very real anxieties of rural residents would go a long way.” There is, she said, “an incredible amount of work to be done in the next two years to build the sort of coalition” that can beat the president.
Peppin, of Hagedorn’s campaign, also looks to the Stauber win for a precursor of what could happen in two years. GOP success in the Eighth suggests that rural Democrats, once “the heart of the farmer-labor” part of the DFL, “don’t really exist the way they used to,” he said.
What’s unclear, Peppin said, is whether the GOP’s loss of suburban votes was “anti-Republican or a way to get a pound of flesh out of Trump.”
National exit polls of voters in U.S. House races found that although Trump’s support among white women and suburban voters eroded, it didn’t evaporate: 40 percent of both groups stuck with the GOP.
Still, the midterm results could complicate Trump’s path to the 270 Electoral College votes he needs to win.
The Midwest and Rust Belt were crucial in 2016. Ohio elected a Republican governor this month and seems, along with Iowa and Indiana, to be reliable Trump country.
But Democrats made gains in states that were decisive in Trump’s 2016 win. Republican Gov. Scott Walker lost in Wisconsin. Democrats won major statewide contests in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Trump campaigned this year in those three states and visited Minnesota twice. His strategists might be thinking of Minnesota as an insurance policy: Before 2016, Wisconsin gave its 10 electoral votes to Democrats in seven presidential elections. Minnesota also has 10 electoral votes.
Despite the hunt for 2020 clues in midterm results, they aren’t always reliable previews of the next presidential race.
In 2010, two years into Obama’s first term, the GOP gained 63 U.S. House seats, six in the U.S. Senate and 680 in legislatures. Two years later, Obama was easily re-elected.