A Minnesota county sits on the cusp between red and blue
COURTLAND, MINN. – If Donald Trump intends to carry Minnesota next year — a promise he repeated at his Minneapolis campaign rally Thursday — he needs to hang on to voters like Mary Waibel in counties like hers that flipped to him from Democrat Barack Obama in 2016.
There's a case to be made for the president's confidence. Nicollet County, where Waibel and her family farm, was among 19 in Minnesota that helped Trump finish just 44,765 votes behind Hillary Clinton in Minnesota. In 2008 and 2012, all of those counties voted for Obama.
Minnesota Nicollet Co.
The Midwest remakes American politics
"Nicollet County will go red again. There's an underlying sense of unease" with Democrats' liberal ideas, said Republican Julie Quist, who lives near Norseland in the triangle-shaped county southwest of the Twin Cities.
But last fall's election results in Nicollet County, Minnesota and other crucial Midwest states and the drive toward impeachment could sour Trump's 2020 outlook.
Of those 19 Minnesota counties that shifted from Obama to Trump in 2016, six — including Nicollet — voted for Democrats in 2018 races for governor, both U.S. Senate seats and the U.S. House.
Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin helped deliver Trump's surprise win three years ago. Yet in 2018's "blue wave," Democrats claimed three of Iowa's four U.S. House seats and swept all statewide races in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Nicollet County's verdict on the president could come down to residents like Waibel, 57. She cast her vote for Trump in 2016. But their farm, like those of many of their neighbors', has been hurt by China's retaliation for tariffs imposed by Trump and the easing of a requirement that oil refineries add ethanol to fuel.
"I will vote for him, just because I usually do vote that way, but honestly it's hard to vote for people if you're not really for them," she said.
At this early stage in the effort to impeach the president, views in Nicollet County are split along party lines.
"We're not really worried about it," said Nicollet County GOP chairman Kim Spears, a former North Mankato City Council member and state House candidate. "The Russian-collusion thing didn't pan out and now they've come up with this. It's another battle that has to be fought."
DFL county chairman Herb Kroon said that Democrats had to launch the inquiry. Trump's attempt "to influence American foreign policy based on his own political needs was totally inappropriate," he said.
Political divisions in Nicollet County are delineated by geography, local activists say.
St. Peter, the county seat, is considered a liberal bulwark because it is home to Gustavus Adolphus College and the Minnesota Security Hospital, where some employees are union members. North Mankato is thought to be more moderate. The small towns and broad stretches of fertile farmland west of those cities are traditionally conservative.
While the fault lines can be more complex, the sharp divisions that fuel national tensions are palpable here. So are misgivings about Trump like those voiced by Mary Waibel and others in Nicollet County, which could be a significant bellwether for the state.
At a recent beer festival on North Mankato's Belgrade Avenue, maintenance worker Dan Kroubetz, 53, said he voted for Trump in 2016 because he was "tired of my hard-earned money going to freeloaders that don't work for it."
But he has qualms now about the president's plan to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. "I'd rather see the money … go to fix up the streets and bridges," he said.
Ron and Jada Reemer, who also attended the street fair, are so dismayed by the president that they have had serious discussions about moving to Belize if he is re-elected.
"He's a bad person," said Ron, 54, a highway engineer. Citing the environment and education, he said that Trump "has done more harm to the country than good." Asked if fear or disgust are behind her willingness to leave the U.S., Jada, 49, who works in hospital billing, said, "Both."
Consoling 11-month-old Cocobean after her loss in the festival's wiener dog race, Trump supporters Angie and Paul Milton said that their votes are based on their values.
Angie, 41, runs a home day care and said her opposition to abortion is a key factor in her political decisions. Paul, 51, an auto mechanic, supports "Christian-based" candidates and will vote for Trump again "unless somebody better comes along," he said.
The Miltons lamented the anger they see when talk turns to politics. "Years ago, you could voice your opinion and that's fine," Paul said. Now "it can get heated very quickly."
elections in Minnesota
Click a year to see how the state voted in the last five presidential elections, county by county.
|Obama||✔ 54%||✔ 54.2%|
|Obama||✔ 52.6%||✔ 52.6%|
2018 Nicollet Co. election results
|U.S. Sen. special election|
|U.S. Rep. District 1*|
*Hagedorn won the seat.
The demographic and economic view from Nicollet County
|Number of companies||2,371|
|High school or higher||93.5%|
|Median household income||$62,593|
|Below poverty level||8.8%|
|Unemployment (Aug. 2019)||2.5%|
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Labor Department, Minnesota Secretary of State
That's why some Trump supporters are reluctant to admit it and why people didn't see his 2016 victory coming, Peter Trocke said at a gathering of GOP activists at the Happy Chef restaurant, home to a famous talking statue.
They don't speak up, he said, "because of all the backlash that comes from the other side, and their neighbors may be on the other side. They want to keep it to themselves."
Trocke, 56, is an auctioneer and former Nicollet County Republican chairman who has run for the state Senate. Trump can capture enough "light liberals" to win again, he said, dismissing the impeachment effort as "totally partisan."
The president's rejection of Republican orthodoxy on issues such as trade and taxes could be an advantage, said Quist, 72. Her husband, Allen, is a former state representative and two-time candidate for governor. "There are a lot more people who want to be identified as independent than ever before," she said.
Spears, 65, the county GOP chairman, sees the same wariness of party politics. When he was knocking on doors during his 2018 state House campaign, he heard "over and over again" that voters were fed up with the major parties because they "can never get along … can never get anything done."
Trocke said he's "a little bit" worried about the Democratic presidential candidates' chances, but Spears isn't. "As far as policy positions, I don't see a hill of beans difference between any of them," he said.
Candidates' views on issues are less important to some Nicollet County Democratic voters than choosing a nominee who can soften the strident tone that colors politics — and reclaim some voters who backed Trump in 2016.
"I feel like all people on all sides want change," Heather FitzSimmons, 36, said at Mankato's Loose Moose Saloon, where active Democrats met to share their views.
"We're not strong when we're apart. … If we're apart we're much easier to control," said the high school art teacher from North Mankato.
Many people she knows are confused and turned off by politics, said nurse Jaimee Kudrle, 41. As a result, "they don't want to be associated with one side or the other."
Democratic candidates are providing a contrast to Trump by exhibiting "intelligence, energy, positivity," said Dan Levin, an emeritus professor of business law at Minnesota State University, Mankato. "I don't see anybody trying to divide the public," he said.
Motivated voters were the difference between Democrats' 2016 losses and wins last November, said factory worker Doug Brugman, 58. "It's all about turnout," he said.
If enthusiasm is a measure of how 2020 will end, his party should have an edge, Kroon said. A few years ago, the county DFL Party didn't have enough active members to meet monthly. "Now we do, and we have 15 or 20 people come every month," he said.
Concern about climate change is the catalyst that is mobilizing some people, particularly the young.
Scores of sign-toting Gustavus Adolphus students marched to Minnesota Square Park in St. Peter to participate in a national day of protests.
Siri Olson, 21, a senior from Northfield who's studying nursing and Spanish, recently got involved in politics, "and through my political activity I've gotten more into environmental activity," she said. Her public health class is exploring links between respiratory health and climate change.
Megan Mindt, 21, a senior from Mora, had the opposite experience. She isn't "super politically active," she said, but her environmental studies major helped her understand why elections matter.
Because she grew up in a rural area, Mindt said, "I'm having kind of a political conundrum: Do I really still support those values or should I be more concerned about things like climate change and human rights?"
Catholic nuns who are veterans of the fight for social justice also brought homemade signs to the park.
"This gives us hope," said Sister Helen Jones, 68, who returned in July from working at the U.S.-Mexico border.
"I feel a need to make a difference," said Sister Alice Zachmann, 93. "I can't believe we have the kind of president we have and so many people who are supporting him."
Back at the Loose Moose, farmer Judd Hendrycks, 58, echoed her concern. "I believe some of my neighbors are still forgiving him," he said.
A conversation in Steve and Deb Sjostrom's kitchen on their dairy farm near Lafayette suggested that Hendrycks could be right. It also illustrated how deeply the agricultural economy is entwined with politics.
Steve, 58, has 100 cows and has watched the number of dairy farms in Nicollet County shrink. "I know of six guys who got out this last spring," he said, adding that he hopes "to go another four or five years."
The effects are felt everywhere, including local businesses, said Steve, the township treasurer. Signs opposing a Nov. 4 school bond referendum have popped up in some yards. Neighbors aren't as close as they once were because renters have supplanted generations of family farmers. "You can't talk to anybody at church anymore, because the church has gotten too small," he said.
Federal bailout funds almost offset Steve's trade-related losses, but except for replacing a skid loader this year — "Oh, God, I almost cried" when it died, he said — capital expenditures are on hold.
"What I hear from other farmers is nobody's mad at Trump about it," he said. The trade imbalance with China had to be reckoned with, he said. "I think in the long run we'll probably come out good, but it really hurts now."
He voted for Trump in 2016 but isn't fully committed now. "I kind of wish there would be a good Republican candidate that would come through, but it doesn't look like it," he said.
His wife, Deb, 57, hopes a strong Democrat emerges. "I like to vote for people that are nice and respectful and, you know, kind of normal, so I didn't vote for him," she said.
At a picnic table on the 2,200-acre farm where he raises pigs, corn and soybeans, Mary Waibel's husband, Tim, said he'd like to replace a big John Deere tractor but can't afford to this year.
Tim, 60, believes the trade situation had to be dealt with, but he didn't like the way the president handled it. "It drives me nuts when Trump says 'the farmers love me.' Yeah, they might, but you can only rub somebody for so long," he said.
He's "flexible" when choosing which party's candidates to support, Tim said, but he'd "leave my ballot blank" before voting for liberal Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.
Mary Waibel doubts Trump can carry Nicollet County again, but she's not ready to abandon him. "We're still trying to trust him," she said.