Dave Thul is no one’s idea of a Democrat.
The 48-year-old from Owatonna is an Iraq war veteran who organized Tea Party rallies in Steele County a decade ago. A warehouse manager in Faribault, he went on to stints as chairman of Republican Party units at the congressional and county level.
Now Thul finds himself in the unlikely position of rooting for Joe Biden to win the presidential election. “I think the country has a less worse outcome” if the Democratic former vice president wins, he said.
Thul is a “Never Trumper,” one of a small but vocal class of Republican dissenters in Minnesota and around the country who believe President Donald Trump has hijacked the conservative cause. Dismissed as establishment sellouts by Trump backers and GOP loyalists, these activists are on a mission to move public opinion ahead of a historically pivotal presidential decision.
Despite overwhelming support for Trump in the Republican Party, a number of nationally prominent and former GOP insiders are spending and messaging to prevent Trump’s re-election. One political action committee, the Lincoln Project, counts among its leaders New York attorney George Conway, the husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway.
Never Trumpers may lack the votes to swing even a close presidential race, but they are using well-funded advertising campaigns and social media intended to erode Trump’s support with Republicans and conservatives still on the fence.
“My goal and my best case scenario is that Donald Trump doesn’t just lose this election, Donald Trump needs to be repudiated thoroughly in this election,” said Sarah Longwell, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative strategist whose “Republican Voters Against Trump” initiative is mounting a $10 million nationwide advertising campaign built around videos of 2016 Trump voters explaining why they won’t back him again.
“We found it’s more convincing to those who are on the fence about Trump to hear from people like themselves than it is to hear from a bunch of Republican elites,” Longwell said.
In Minnesota, a potential 2020 battleground, the last two Star Tribune Minnesota Polls show Trump’s approval rating at above 90% among self-identified Republicans. But in a close race, Trump’s GOP detractors are aiming at conservative purists like Thul.
“Trump is not a conservative. Trump is about whatever he can get away with that day,” said Thul, whose Twitter account the last four years has been a daily litany of anti-Trump messages and memes.
With partisanship and polarization now the default setting in national politics, Thul said most of the activists he got to know over six years in local GOP politics no longer speak to him.
“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” Jason Lewis, the former congressman running for U.S. Senate this year, said of Trump’s Republican doubters. Jennifer Carnahan, chairwoman of Minnesota’s Republican Party, called them “a small few who are disenfranchised and dissatisfied.”
Republicans are not alone in their need to quell interparty discord. Biden’s rise dashed the hopes of many on the Democratic left, raising concerns that the 77-year-old candidate won’t appeal to younger, more progressive voters.
“They’re going down the same path they did with Hillary Clinton,” Carnahan said.
But the ferocity of the attacks against Trump from some of his conservative critics is without parallel in recent political history.
“Number one, he’s not competent. He’s not running a competent government,” said Ken Cobb, a Bemidji insurance agent who was the Beltrami County Republican chairman until spring 2016. “Number two, he’s not a principled conservative. Number three, he’s not a person of character.”
Andy Brehm, who was communications director for former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, said Trump “hasn’t grown in office in any respect.” Luke Hellier, a Lakeville City Council member and a GOP strategist, said that “the country needs a unifying figure right now and President Trump is not that.”
Recent national and swing-state polls have shown Biden open a narrow but persistent lead over Trump. By the end of last week, the website FiveThirtyEight.com’s running average of national polls had Biden leading Trump by 9.2 percentage points.
But the candidates have polled tighter in key swing states, raising the prospect that Trump could still pull off an electoral college win. Last month’s Minnesota Poll had Biden at 49% and Trump at 44%.
A number of Minnesota Republicans, even several who don’t like Trump, said they believe the president’s recent “law and order” messaging could resonate with swing voters and Trump doubters, especially if Democratic elected officials in places like Minneapolis dismantle police departments or make big cuts to police budgets.
“Getting rid of the police — that’s just insanity,” said Brehm, now a Minneapolis attorney.
Republican politicians sharing the ballot with Trump this fall have nothing but praise for Trump’s policies and his performance as president. In addition to debate over public safety, they see political fodder in the state of Minnesota’s COVID-driven restrictions on businesses and public gatherings.
“Look at the accomplishments of our president,” said U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber. “Before this pandemic we had a blue collar boom, we had historic low unemployment, historic low black unemployment. This president supported manufacturing, he supported mining. And I believe under this president we’re going to have an economic rebound in short order.”
Stauber is a freshman Republican from northeastern Minnesota whose success in 2018 was aided by Trump’s popularity in his largely rural, working-class district. Asked about Trump’s abrasive political style, Stauber, who has worked to cultivate a bipartisan, collaborative image, said: “Yes, probably there are some comments or tweets where some people said, he should not do that.”
Former state Sen. Michelle Fischbach, the Republican candidate for Congress in northwestern Minnesota, has built her campaign’s messaging around support for Trump in a House district he carried by more than 30 points in 2016.
“He’s popular, very popular in this district,” said Fischbach, who is positioned to benefit from a big rural turnout for Trump even if he bottoms out in the Twin Cities and loses the state to Biden.
Lewis, the former congressman and radio host now running against Democratic Sen. Tina Smith, won southeastern Minnesota’s Second District when he shared the ballot with Trump in 2016. But Lewis lost two years later in a midterm race that was interpreted as a rebuke of Trump by suburban voters.
Lewis said he doesn’t blame Trump for his 2018 loss. “You always get a midterm pullback for the party in the White House,” he said. In his first statewide bid, Lewis continues to strongly align himself with the president.
Trump’s success with most Republicans, Lewis said, is that he has mounted an actual political assault on issues that conservatives care deeply about, like abortion and immigration; and on institutions they distrust, like the media and the Washington establishment.
“What Trump did was drag the Republican Party and its many elements, in many cases kicking and screaming, into the fights that they’d been putting off literally for decades,” Lewis said. “You can’t parse this one. You have to pick a side.”
Thul picks none of the above. He won’t vote for Trump. He doesn’t think he can bring himself to vote for Biden, and he fears that an anti-Trump wave in November will sweep Democrats fully into power in Washington.
In 2016, Thul voted for conservative independent Evan McMullin, as did many other Minnesota Never Trumpers. McMullin, a former CIA officer, got more than 50,000 votes in Minnesota that year, a total bigger than the margin by which Democrat Hillary Clinton edged out Trump for the state’s 10 electoral votes.
Cobb, the Bemidji insurance man, voted for McMullin four years ago. This year, he’s thinking about what once seemed unthinkable.
“Biden? Yeah, I’m considering it,” Cobb said. “I fundamentally disagree with most of his platform. But there’s bigger things at stake here.”