Mankato – Margarita Ruiz should be celebrating.
The first generation Mexican American knocked on doors across her southern Minnesota community and helped Joe Biden flip Blue Earth County and win in November.
Yet, the people who chanted "send them back" outside her family home and posted it on Snapchat after the 2016 election didn't get that angry overnight, she said. And they won't just go away after the inauguration of a new president on Wednesday. "After Donald Trump officially doesn't have a platform anymore, those people might try to distance themselves from him, or they might retreat back into their homes," she said. "But [the hatred] is still there."
Blue Earth is one of only four Minnesota counties that flipped from supporting Barack Obama to Trump four years ago, then back again to Biden in November. Heading into Biden's inauguration, some people here on either side of the political spectrum are feeling uneasy about what will come next.
Democrats in this bellwether community fear Trumpism will linger in their cities and towns long after he leaves the White House. Conservatives, frustrated by Trump's loss, are grappling with images of a violent mob of his supporters storming the Capitol, resulting in the president's second impeachment and banishment from Twitter.
"Free speech is no longer accepted. Free speech is shut down. Communication to conservatives," said Douglas Hitzemann, a retiree who is treasurer for Blue Earth County Republicans. "I don't see [Biden] as a person that can bring the country together."
Directly across the Minnesota River, Biden also flipped neighboring Nicollet County after Trump won it four years ago. That doesn't surprise Yurie Hong, a professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, a private college just 20 minutes from Mankato. Surrounding those larger cities are dozens of smaller towns and huge swaths of farmland, areas that are much more conservative.
"I kind of think about Mankato and St. Peter as the Twin Cities of south-central Minnesota," Hong said. "There are probably a lot of similar dynamics happening down here as there are across the country."
While Biden flipped both counties by 3 to 4 percentage points, First District Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn won re-election in a close rematch against Democrat Dan Feehan. And DFL incumbent Jeff Brand was defeated by now state Rep. Susan Akland, R-St. Peter, a nurse who attended a Storm the Capitol rally in St. Paul the same day as the rioters breached the U.S. Capitol.
"Clearly, with what we've seen in the last week, we still have a lot of work to do," said Hong, who helped organize the local Indivisible chapter after Trump was elected. "There won't necessarily be Trump throwing all kinds of bombs in the political arena, but by no stretch are we anywhere out of the woods. It's just a different woods. We're in a different horror movie with fewer jump-scares."
Sitting in a conference room inside his asset management company in Mankato, Scott Weilage agrees there's plenty of work ahead, but it's different for him. He describes himself as a "socially responsible" conservative. He voted for DFLer Tim Walz, now governor, when he first ran for Congress, but Weilage has also held events for Republican gubernatorial candidates and attended three Trump events in the state.
Weilage condemned the violence that occurred at the U.S. Capitol, but like many conservatives, he said the group that breached the building isn't representative of Trump's broader base. He wants to see Trump stay involved in politics even after he leaves office, but he's also looking at where to throw his energy next.
"We're waiting for a governor or a president or a whomever to really start the process ... of unification and just a more civil dialogue, and I think the opportunity is right in front of us in our own communities," he said. "You have this right over here, and this left over here, but there's this 75% in the middle, and if we could somehow focus our energies on that, that would be wonderful."
Kim Spears, chairman of the Nicollet County Republicans, said there's nothing Biden can say on Wednesday that will make him feel better about where the country is headed.
That's in part because he doesn't believe there was a thorough enough examination of Trump's claims of widespread voter fraud in the election. Yet numerous audits, investigations and legal challenges into voter fraud have turned up no evidence to support those claims.
"I feel that the elections were flawed, and the degree to which they were flawed is open to interpretation, since no one is willing to dive into it and do a real forensic audit of what happened," said Spears. "This will continue to be a point of division in the country."
National polling following the Capitol insurrection shows many Republicans still support Trump. And while 10 Republicans in Congress backed impeachment last week, most opposed the move from House Democrats.
Andrew Weinzierl, a recent Minnesota State University, Mankato graduate, grew up in conservative Delano, Minn., and his family members are hard-core Trump supporters. They used a red MAGA hat as a topper for their Christmas tree last year.
He considers himself a moderate Democrat and has surrounded himself with people with more liberal opinions on campus, including Ruiz, his girlfriend. With a foot in both worlds, he doesn't have confidence that there's a path toward unity.
"I truly think that things are going to get worse. I don't know what it's going to take, but it's not going to take just this administration," he said. "It's not going to take four years to get things back on track, I think it's going to take a lot longer. Calls for unity can be hard on both sides."
Sitting behind plexiglass in the Mankato bookstore he's run since 1975, Mark Hustad said America has "dodged a bullet." If the election had been any closer, he thinks the violence at the Capitol would have been much worse.
Hustad believes democracy is as fragile as it's ever been. While he doesn't identify with either party, in the short-term he prefers Biden's executive experience and steady demeanor to Trump's blustering style.
"As far as bringing peace to the country," he said, "his personality is about as good as we could hope for right now."
Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042