Even as Minnesota Republicans bow to social distancing at an online state convention, a growing number of the party’s leaders are galvanizing supporters and ratcheting up rhetoric against the economic restrictions driven by COVID-19.
On Saturday, the Republican Party of Minnesota meets for a virtual 2020 convention that will look very different from past party gatherings. What was to be a two-day affair at Rochester’s Mayo Civic Center, with speeches and balloons and loud music and lots of in-person politicking, will instead play out in the form of an online conference call with several thousand participants.
This year, the pandemic is both upending many of the customs and methods of a traditional campaign, and setting up what’s likely to be an election cycle defined by opposition to DFL Gov. Tim Walz’s response to the virus.
“You’ve got a lot of liberals using a public health challenge to try to expand power,” said Jason Lewis, a former congressman and radio host who Republicans are expected to endorse for this year’s U.S. Senate race against DFL incumbent Tina Smith.
Lewis has been one of Minnesota’s most vocal critics of COVID restrictions to date. But he’s not alone. U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, the state’s most prominent Republican officeholder, blasted Walz on Thursday for continuing to enforce restrictions that will keep a swath of Minnesota businesses closed at least through June 1, and possibly longer.
Walz “continues to pick winners and losers,” Emmer said. “I don’t fault him for trying to get this thing under control.” But in a phone call with the governor on Tuesday, Emmer said, he urged Walz instead to release tailored safety guidelines and let business owners and customers make their own decisions.
Emmer’s criticism did not soften after the governor’s decision on Wednesday to allow stores to reopen and let Minnesotans leave the house more, while leaving in place for now restrictions for bars, restaurants, theaters, hair salons and other businesses where people must be in close contact.
“Instead it’s this piecemeal thing, where every two or three weeks it’s, ‘You won the golden ticket — you get to reopen Monday!’ ” Emmer said. Minnesota’s other two Republicans in Congress, Reps. Jim Hagedorn and Pete Stauber, echoed that sentiment. They noted that Minnesota’s COVID-19 cases have been mostly concentrated in long-term care facilities, and suggested that preventive efforts could be more squarely focused in that direction.
Hagedorn’s wife, Minnesota GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan, took to Twitter last month to call Minneapolis’ decision to close its beaches for the summer “an excuse for extreme communist control.”
Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota DFL, said Democrats “are working hard to keep Minnesotans safe during this unprecedented public health crisis.” Minnesota Republicans, he said, “are busy promoting conspiracy theories, spreading disinformation and attacking public health experts.”
Polls both nationwide and in Minnesota have shown widespread support for restrictions on public movement even at the expense of economic activity.
But some recent polls have shown sentiment among Republicans shifting. President Donald Trump has been calling on states to move more quickly toward reopening, and many Republican governors have been responding in kind. A series of protests in states led by Democrats, including Minnesota, have been organized by conservative gun-rights activists.
Minnesotans who live near state lines are positioned to see alternative approaches. Iowa and the Dakotas, all governed by Republicans, have pursued looser restrictions. Wisconsin’s Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the state’s counties could set their own policies, making a wave of business reopenings seemingly imminent.
“People in South Dakota are selling their wares and making money,” said Hagedorn, whose southern Minnesota district borders Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota. “And 20 miles east in Luverne, businesses are shut down and going bankrupt.”
National polling released this week by Politico/Morning Consult found a 13-point drop in the last month among GOP voters who said they were more worried about public health than the economy.
The same poll shows continued possible pitfalls for Republicans: A majority of Americans, 56%, said they’re more concerned about public health than the economy. And if spikes in infection rates follow in the wake of greater economic activity, the politics of the issue could scramble again.
But for many of the Republican activists preparing to gather virtually on Saturday, the issues being raised go to the heart of their conservative principles.
“We feel we’ve been put under house arrest,” said Sheri Auclair, a conservative activist from Wayzata who is running this weekend for deputy chair of the Minnesota Republican Party. “I’d never put someone else at risk, but you know, we feel we are all adults. If car crashes increase, do you make us all stop driving cars?”