It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find Republican Party activists in Minnesota who support Donald Trump for president.
That was true last Thursday night, when about 75 Republicans gathered in a party room at O’Gara’s Bar and Grill in St. Paul to watch the season’s first major GOP presidential debate live on Fox News. A survey of this mix of elected officials, young operatives, donors and local activists found the most support coalescing around a few heavyweights in the race like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
But it was Trump’s TV-tailored showmanship that produced the single biggest response of the night at the debate party thrown by the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a GOP-aligned political group. When the real estate tycoon and former “Celebrity Apprentice” host took a crass potshot at his old nemesis Rosie O’Donnell minutes into the debate, the room erupted in laughter. Not to say that translates into any kind of support. State Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington, not exactly a stranger to the occasional outrageous remark, bemoaned how Trump has sucked up so much of the coverage of an otherwise substantial Republican field.
“Besides the carnival barker Trump, this debate is actually substantive,” Garofalo said, between bites of chicken wings and gulps of pop.
Like many prominent Minnesota Republicans, Garofalo is undecided in the wide-open GOP race. He said he’s looking for the candidate who best fills a sweet spot — “the most conservative candidate that’s also the most electable.” His top choices as of Thursday night’s debate were Walker, Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Garofalo’s House colleague, Speaker Kurt Daudt of Crown, had been vacillating between Walker, Rubio and Kasich. But Daudt revealed during the debate that he had signed up with Walker, and had accepted a position as state chairman of his presidential campaign.
“He’s done some brave reforms in Wisconsin, and he won three elections in four years in a state that frankly, like Minnesota, leans blue,” Daudt said, referring to Walker’s 2010 election, 2014 re-election and victory in a 2012 recall election. Daudt predicted Walker would win over many Republican leaders here in Wisconsin’s neighbor. But it’s not unanimous.
“I’m with Rubio or Kasich right now,” said Amy Koch, the former Senate majority leader. “I’m watching Rubio the closest right now.”
A sometime critic of her own party for lack of women in prominent leadership roles, Koch was disappointed that the Thursday night debate featured 10 men. An earlier debate for second-tier candidates did feature the lone woman in the GOP field, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, whom national political pundits almost unanimously crowned the winner.
Sen. David Hann, the current GOP leader in the state Senate, is a Fiorina fan.
“I’m intrigued by her,” Hann said. “She may be the best communicator in the whole bunch. I think she should be on the Republican ticket — either for president or vice president.”