DULUTH — Minnesota Republicans gathered Friday for their state convention, needing to rebuild a party that has struggled in recent years but remains divided over Donald Trump as its presidential nominee.
"We've got a candidate, we've got a chance to win the White House," said Jim Folie, a convention delegate from Waseca. "Let's get together and do it."
The biennial Republican meeting at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center comes as Trump is consolidating GOP support. Recent national polls have shown a growing number of party faithful not initially sold on Trump's unconventional campaign are starting to come around.
Minnesota remains a particular challenge. Trump finished third in the state's presidential caucus in March, one of his worst showings, and party leaders have openly worried that Trump's penchant for controversy could damage GOP prospects in a state where a Republican has not won a statewide election for a decade.
A veteran GOP politician who will share the ballot with Trump in November admitted to some unease at the prospect.
"There are days when it makes me nervous, because among my friends there are some people who say, at least at this point, never Trump," said Fran Bradley, a former long-serving state representative from Rochester who is trying to mount a comeback this fall in a swing district that's been held by a DFLer for the last decade. "I wonder what that will mean."
Bradley said he would vote for Trump in November "even though he wasn't my first, second or third choice."
In Duluth on Friday, a group of party activists unsuccessfully tried to officially put some distance between Trump and the Minnesota party.
"We're asking you to affirm that one can be a good Republican in spite of reservations about our presumptive nominee," said Walter Hudson, an Albertville city councilman. "The alternative is further perpetuating divisions within the party at a moment when we can least afford it."
At a meeting of the party's central committee before the full convention, Hudson moved a resolution to that effect. It failed on a voice vote, with Folie and other Trump supporters saying it would inflame the divisions its proponents said they want to heal.
"It doesn't unite the party at all, it separates us into factions," said Don Huizenga, a GOP activist from Anoka. "This is a person who got millions and millions and millions of party activists to come out and say, 'This is the nominee we want.' "
Despite the divisions on display, there was plenty of evidence in the Duluth convention center that more Minnesota Republicans are starting to come around on Trump. At a hospitality suite manned by Trump staffers and volunteers, delegates snacked on cold cuts and cookies as they looked over Trump T-shirts and other campaign gear.
Stopping Clinton unites party
"Realistically, Trump wasn't most people's first choice," said Ron Carey, a former state party chairman. Carey initially backed Ben Carson in the presidential race, but at the convention he was helping out at the hospitality suite and with other organizing efforts by the Trump campaign.
Carey said the reason is simple: "The one thing that's going to unite everybody here is our desire to not see Hillary Clinton become president."
Recent years have brought tough times for Minnesota Republicans. The DFL holds the governor's office, both U.S. Senate seats and five of eight congressional seats, the other three statewide political offices and a majority in the state Senate. The party does hold a state House majority.
The last Republican to win statewide was former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in 2006.
The state GOP has also been slowly rebuilding from a financial calamity following the 2010 elections that nearly led it into bankruptcy. The party still has about $1.1 million in debt on its books, but that's down from a high of about $2.2 million a couple of years ago.
"It's to the point where it doesn't cripple us in our ability to execute," said state GOP Chairman Keith Downey.
There are no statewide races in Minnesota this year, but 2018 will bring an open race for governor and a U.S. Senate race for the seat held by Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Downey said the party's goal this year is to hold its House majority, build its margins in the state Senate, and unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, who is facing a rematch against Republican Stewart Mills.
"Our job this year is to catapult off that and really start making progress," Downey said.