Two months ago, hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans ventured out to cast early presidential nominating ballots in a state with an overflowing treasury and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation.
But a lot can happen in two months.
Now Minnesota is $2.4 billion in the red. More than a half-million residents are unemployed. And an economic recession is all but certain. As November approaches, voters are facing a starkly different reality, and the messages they’re hearing from candidates, parties and outside groups are shifting dramatically.
Republicans, who were talking about tax cuts and highlighting the country’s economic strength before COVID-19, are now talking about reopening and supporting businesses to quickly return to financial stability. Democrats are talking less about gun control and environmental protections and more about paid leave, housing assistance and worker safety in the midst of a global pandemic.
Outside political committees are starting to ratchet up the attacks, placing the blame on their adversaries for either failing to respond quickly enough to the pandemic or going too far and sending the nation into a long-term economic tailspin.
“We’re going to have a debate about whether we’re here to protect the economy or here to protect public health,” said Todd Rapp, a public affairs consultant and former political operative. “I don’t think the campaign is going to settle it, but they’re going to tee it up, and campaigns are going to have to figure out how to thematically deal with it.”
The pandemic poses a messaging challenge in a pivotal election year in Minnesota, where all eight congressional districts, a seat in the U.S. Senate and control of the Legislature are at stake. At the top of the ticket, President Donald Trump is facing re-election after nearly winning the state four years ago.
Individual candidates, in particular, are walking a precarious line between the usual partisan rhetoric and trying to provide an uplifting message, or at least trying to avoid the appearance of political opportunism during a crisis.
“You can’t ignore what’s going on,” said Lindsey Port, a Democrat from Burnsville running for a targeted seat in the Republican-controlled Senate. “We’re seeing the effects of this pandemic, but also the effects of not having universal health care, and having your health care tied to your employment in a time where we’re seeing record unemployment. Drawing some of those connections while being responsible with that message is going to be really important.”
But lately, candidates say their conversations with voters often have been less about policy ideas and more about helping people navigate the pandemic.
“We quickly changed our message to not so much about my platform and what I’m going to do for the district, but about outreach and how our community can come together for those in need,” said Tyler Kistner, a Republican candidate for the congressional seat held by Rep. Angie Craig.
Kistner said he has urged people to donate to blood drives and food banks and to support small businesses.
Elliott Engen, a Republican running for the state House, said his campaign discussions with small business owners around White Bear Lake focus on making sure people know about state and federal aid programs and where to find resources online.
“We’re not handing out literature. We’re handing out business cards and saying, ‘Call this number if you have a question,’ ” Engen said. “We’re really thinking, how can we put out a positive message. And when this is all said and done, we will be here for them.”
While people are in isolation, positive messaging directly from candidates has been effective. DFL Third District Rep. Dean Phillips has been surprised at how many people are now picking up their phone when he calls. “It used to be 1 in 10; now it’s more like 8 in 10,” he said. “They’re human, heartwarming calls.”
While some candidates have tread lightly on political rhetoric during the coronavirus, political action committees are already buying up ad space to tell their side of the pandemic story. And with people confined to their homes during Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order, they’ve found a captive audience.
Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a Democratic political action committee, recently spent more than $1 million on coronavirus-related digital ads in Minnesota attacking President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic. The ads feature Minnesotans talking directly into the camera about how Trump failed to protect their health and safety.
“We saw that he was trying to cover up his inaction,” Alliance deputy director Marissa Luna said. “We knew that we needed to make sure people knew the truth.” She said the group will be running COVID-19-focused ads for “as long as we need” to make sure voters hear that message.
The Service Employees International Union has spent six figures to run ads in battleground states, including Minnesota, that say Trump has not done enough to get front-line workers personal protective equipment. SEIU Healthcare Minnesota President Jamie Gulley said nursing home workers here don’t have enough of the proper masks and gowns.
“It’s completely unsafe, and its completely because of President Donald Trump’s decision not to use the Defense Production Act,” Gulley said.
Republicans are focused on the response by Democrats to the virus in Minnesota. In light of a projected $2.4 billion budget deficit caused by the pandemic, the Republican-aligned Minnesota Jobs Coalition PAC sent out a release last week criticizing state Democrats for supporting state employee raises that were negotiated last year.
Minnesota Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan said voters frustrated about business closures and job losses aren’t looking to the president, they’re looking at Walz — who is not on the ballot this fall — and by extension other Democrats.
Voters “are looking at the governor and saying, he put in these executive orders, he took these actions that, based on the data at the time he thought were right, he extended the order, and now we’re still not able to be open,” she said.
But even for the political parties, striking the right balance with voters has been a challenge while the country is in “crisis mode,” said DFL Party Chair Ken Martin.
Most voters aren’t ready for the partisan politicking that would usually be ramping up in the spring of an election year.
“As we move forward there will be a time when people are looking at leadership, they’re going to be looking at the actions of people in Washington and state capitals across the country and they will hold their elected officials to account,” Martin said. “We need to look at when that pivot makes the most sense, but it’s not right now.”
Twitter: @bbierschbach @jessvanb