Hillary Clinton has begun steering general election resources into Minnesota, a state Democrats have long counted on winning in November but where supporters of Republican Donald Trump see untapped potential.
Trump’s campaign has paid little attention to Minnesota to date, and at the moment there’s not a single paid operative for Trump in the state. That could change after the Republican National Convention later in July, as his supporters here pitch the celebrity businessman’s political advisers on making a play for Minnesota.
“As I told some Trump people yesterday, this is the state that elected Jesse Ventura, that elected colorful and unconventional personalities like Paul Wellstone and Al Franken,” said Ron Carey, a former state Republican chairman who said he’s been in frequent contact with one of Trump’s top aides, Ed Brookover. “Donald Trump is a totally different kind of candidate that can appeal to different segments of the electorate than your typical Republican, and that makes Minnesota viable and in play in my mind.”
For any Republican nominee, there’s undeniable logic to bypassing Minnesota: the state has backed the Democrat in the last 10 straight presidential elections. Trailing Clinton in nearly every national poll in recent weeks, Trump’s team could well decide to focus on states more traditionally receptive to Republicans.
A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll conducted in late April showed Clinton leading Trump 48 percent to 35 percent.
But Trump has shown repeatedly he’s rarely guided by conventional campaign wisdom. Ken Martin, chairman of the DFL Party, also mentioned Ventura unprompted when asked if he’s worried about Trump’s appeal in Minnesota. “Most of us who lived through the 1998 election here know we shouldn’t take anything for granted,” he said.
Martin and other prominent DFLers concede that Clinton will have to fight harder to win votes in broad swaths of outstate Minnesota. And Trump’s protectionist-flavored message on trade might resonate with some in an Iron Range region battered by the unsettled global steel market.
“People are feeling a lot of insecurity up here — I’ve never seen it like this — and it has everything to do with trade,” said state Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, a DFLer who has long represented parts of the Iron Range, an area where Trump found some of his strongest support in the state’s caucuses this spring.
Trump has made blistering attacks on trade practices a central theme of his campaign.
“When subsidized foreign steel is dumped into our markets, threatening our factories, the politicians do nothing,” Trump said in Pennsylvania. “For years, they watched on the sidelines as our jobs vanished and our communities were plunged into depression-level unemployment.”
Bakk supports Clinton and is confident she will win Minnesota, primarily by racking up big margins in the more vote-rich Twin Cities metro. Minnesota’s rural areas have been trending Republican, but it’s been moving at a slower pace on the traditionally DFL-friendly, union-heavy Iron Range.
“I think the only way [Trump] wins up here is if Hillary stumbles on the trade issue and to some extent on guns. She has to be careful how she talks about both,” Bakk said.
Whether Trump’s campaign does make a concerted effort in Minnesota, particularly by trying to cultivate rural support, would likely have big implications for the state’s legislative and congressional elections. Efforts by deep-pocketed presidential campaigns to identify and turn out base voters traditionally boost that candidate’s party allies up and down the ticket.
Clinton isn’t resting on her advantage in Minnesota.
“You’re going to see a 50-state strategy. We’re not taking anything for granted,” said Mackenzie Taylor, recently hired as Clinton’s Minnesota campaign manager.
Taylor has run or worked on numerous DFL campaigns for more than a decade, and mostly recently was a political organizer for the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees. In 2012, she ran what the DFL calls its “coordinated campaign” — a concerted effort to share resources and ideas between regional, statewide and national Democratic candidates.
There are 18 coordinated campaign offices around Minnesota. Clinton has made additional Minnesota hires, including a longtime, Minnesota-based senior aide to Sen. Al Franken. In recent weeks the campaign has held more than 40 house parties statewide, branded as “Stronger Together,” where supporters of both Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are invited and encouraged to find common purpose.
Minnesota efforts by Trump supporters have been much more ad hoc and scattered. Carey said he recently talked to a Trump supporter in Duluth who was printing and laminating his own yard signs.
“There’s frustration,” said Sheri Auclair, a Republican National Convention delegate from Minnetonka and a Trump supporter. “People are calling me up, people I don’t even know, and I’m hearing frustration because there’s just nothing up and running right now.”
Carey, Auclair and a few other activists with sources in the Trump campaign expect a decision from New York City soon about whether to mount any kind of effort in Minnesota.
“There will be an analysis, people will look at the way the race is shaping up and they’ll make a strategic decision,” state Republican Chairman Keith Downey said of Trump and his advisers.
Downey said helping Trump win here would not be the top priority for Minnesota Republicans and their allied groups. “Our focus this year, the No. 1 priority is the legislative races,” he said. Republicans are defending a state House majority and trying to topple the DFL’s Senate majority, as well as trying to hold two suburban congressional seats and unseat U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan in northeastern Minnesota.
Wisconsin, where Republicans have had more statewide success in recent years, appears to be higher on Trump’s radar than Minnesota: the Associated Press reported last week that he hired the chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy to run his campaign there.
Clinton will be able to count on something else Trump is currently lacking in Minnesota: high-profile home state surrogates. Franken, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Mark Dayton have been on board with Clinton for months.
In fact, both Franken and Klobuchar have been swept up in vice presidential speculation in recent weeks. Don’t bet on it happening: Franken has not been subject to the background check applied to prospective running mates, he said Thursday, and neither has Klobuchar.
Still, Franken is ready to take on Trump. “I think he’s a huckster, and I think people are catching on to that,” he said.
Trump may find it hard to recruit Minnesota Republican leaders to defend him against such critiques. Several of the most high-profile — U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Sen. Norm Coleman — either declined interview requests for this story, or did not respond at all.
Trump does have at least one notable GOP advocate in Minnesota. He named former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann to serve as one of his evangelical advisers, though she too did not respond to interview requests.