Republican candidate for governor Jeff Johnson said his support for President Donald Trump, a likely boost in his recent upset victory in Minnesota’s primary election, will not waver as he turns to the general election and tries to win over a much wider and less conservative set of voters.
“I support him. I like what he is trying to do. I like the direction he is trying to take the country,” Johnson said of Trump during an interview with the Star Tribune. “I don’t always agree with him.”
Candidates across the country are carefully weighing the Trump factor on midterm races. Republicans are wondering whether to align with or distance themselves from a president beset by controversies and persistently low approval ratings, but who is still popular with party loyalists. Democrats must decide whether to go hard at Trump in a nod to their own base, or elevate more issues-based appeals to win over less politically tuned-in voters.
Johnson’s embrace of Trump — Johnson will campaign in Minnesota this week with Vice President Mike Pence, and said he hopes Trump visits the state on his behalf — comes as the White House has been shaken by a recent wave of ominous legal developments. The New York Times reported that some party leaders are now urging vulnerable Republican incumbents in Congress to speak out more forcefully against Trump.
But in Minnesota, which Trump nearly won in 2016 and which the White House sees as a pickup opportunity in 2020, several Republican activists said Johnson — a Hennepin County commissioner — would benefit from continuing to affiliate with the president as he takes on the DFL candidate, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz.
“I think all the Republicans are going to benefit by riding the Trumpster’s coattails, even in an off [-year] election when he isn’t running,” predicted Fred Hage, chairman of the Cass County Republicans. “He is going to really do the rallies, and I think it’s going to resonate with the people.”
Pence will visit Bloomington on Thursday. Johnson’s campaign has been promoting the “unity fundraiser,” which comes with a $150 price tag, or $2,500 for a photo op with Pence. Johnson said he doesn’t know whether Trump, who held a rally in Duluth in June for Eighth Congressional District candidate Pete Stauber, will return to Minnesota before November. But he said Trump has expressed interest.
Johnson already has the president’s endorsement, sent via a tweet after the primary. “Thanks for all of the support you showed me. You have my complete and total Endorsement. You will win in November!” Trump wrote.
Such an endorsement has become invaluable in races across the country, said Walter Hudson, an Albertville City Council member and a conservative radio commentator. The GOP seems to have become “Trump’s party,” he said.
But Hudson wonders: What about the election after this one, or the next? What about a time after Trump?
People see Trump’s 2016 results in Minnesota and take that as “prima facie evidence that more Trump is good for Minnesota,” Hudson said. But for those gains, there are losses, he said. As the nation’s demographics and values shift, Hudson said, he wants to know what Johnson and others would do to attract a broader, more diverse base to sustain the Republican Party.
Johnson paused as he contemplated Trump’s long-term effect on the party. Initially a supporter of Sen. Marco Rubio in the 2016 presidential race, Johnson said he is uncomfortable with some of the things Trump has said, but is confident people will be able to separate his candidacy and vision for Minnesota from the president’s history.
“There’s no question he will be part of this campaign,” Johnson said, noting that half the voters he talks to ask about Trump. “But I do truly believe that most Minnesotans may factor my support for him in, but it’s not going to be determinate of whether they vote for me. They are going to be looking at who I am and what I want to do with the state versus Walz.”
Walz weighs in
Walz said the voters he talks to are more focused on issues such as health care and schools instead of the turmoil coming out of the White House. But Johnson’s support for the president creates an “overarching theme” that Walz said benefits him.
“When people look at the issues or they think of who they would like to represent Minnesota, they are going to see one that is going to be the mirror image of what you’re seeing in D.C., and you’re going to see one that is entirely different,” Walz said.
If elected, Johnson said, he would push to lower Minnesotans’ taxes and said Trump’s tax package was good for the country. Walz said it disproportionately benefited top earners.
Walz said he is open to raising the gas tax and he criticized Johnson’s inflexibility on taxes. When Johnson talks about tax cuts he doesn’t mention that could mean cuts to social programs, Walz said.
Immigration is a key issue for many voters this election, said Johnson, who is closely aligned with Trump on the topic. He wants to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and opposes the creation of sanctuary cities or states, where local authorities limit cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have what are known as separation ordinances, which usually underlie a sanctuary city designation.
Walz said local law enforcement should not be expected to enforce federal immigration law.
Johnson also wants to suspend refugee resettlement in Minnesota and said he would work with the Trump administration to do so. Walz said Minnesota has a moral tradition of helping refugees, and he wants to continue that.
Jennifer Gumbel, former mayor of LeRoy and a local Republican Party activist, disagrees with Trump and Johnson on refugee resettlement.
“Because we have so much, we’re expected to be a safe place for the people who do need it,” Gumbel said, adding that she believes the U.S. already has a strong vetting process for people entering the county.
Gumbel, who calls herself a “Trump pessimist,” said she’ll likely vote for Johnson in November, but said she left the governor’s race section of her primary ballot blank. She urged Johnson to stick to what he thinks is right for Minnesota, rather than focusing on Trump as he tries to appeal to voters across a state that has gone Democratic in every statewide race going back to 2008.
“Ultimately hitching your wagon to someone who has the characteristics that our president has, I think is very problematic and dangerous,” Gumbel said on Wednesday.
The day before, the president’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, testified that the president had directed him to pay two women who alleged affairs with Trump to keep them silent. Cohen’s statement came shortly after former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted of eight felonies. Recent days have brought more stories of former Trump allies cooperating with prosecutors.
Cohen’s testimony is just an allegation at this point, Johnson said. He reiterated that while he personally would do or say things differently than Trump, it does not change his support for the president’s policy work.
“Promises made, promises kept. That’s what’s keeping people behind the president,” said Bev Snow, co-chair of the Republican Party of Wabasha County. .
Hage, the Cass County Republican, was similarly results-focused. If people are paying attention to their 401(k) account or investments and seeing growth, it will be difficult for them not to get on board with Trump and candidates such as Johnson, he said.
“People may say one thing in public, but when you get them in the privacy of the voting booth those things cross their mind,” Hage said. “And it is … tough to argue with results.”