U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer is a good bet to win re-election next month. But there’s another way Minnesota’s most powerful Republican could take a political beating this year.
As chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), Emmer is leading the GOP’s effort to win back a House majority or at least increase their numbers. Success would bolster the Capitol Hill influence of the three-term congressman from Delano.
Recent polls from around the country suggest it’s not headed in that direction. As President Donald Trump falls behind Democrat Joe Biden, Republican fortunes up and down the ballot are in question. Several influential political handicappers now predict House Republicans will drop further into the minority.
“There’s a lot of game left to be played,” Emmer said in an interview. “The one thing we can predict is that we’re going to be in it right until the end.”
Emmer’s own seat in Minnesota’s Sixth Congressional District looks safe. “I’m a realist. I know we have a slim chance,” said Tawnja Zahradka, his Democratic opponent, a political newcomer who’s raised little money.
A former broadcaster and one-time Mrs. Minnesota, Zahradka said she didn’t closely follow politics until experiencing workplace discrimination and filing suit over it in 2017.
“I would watch the news and scream at the TV, and my husband said, run for office,” the Forest Lake resident said. She went to an Emmer town hall in St. Cloud last year, she said, and found him patronizing and dismissive of dissenting viewpoints.
“He rolls in the black SUV, he shakes people’s hands and then he goes back to Washington and votes against their interests,” Zahradka said. She criticized his votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and against renewing the Violence Against Women Act.
Emmer said the Obama-era health law reduced insurance options for many of his constituents. He said he’d like to be part of bipartisan efforts in the next Congress to improve the system. He voted against the Violence Against Women renewal, he said, because Democrats attached gun control provisions opposed by the NRA.
Zahradka blasted Emmer for taking a commercial flight from Washington to Minnesota on Oct. 2, shortly after he was in contact with potentially COVID-infected individuals during President Donald Trump’s last visit to Minnesota.
“You know, he’s out there campaigning without a mask, not quarantining, not following guidelines,” she said. Emmer countered that he’s had frequent COVID tests, all negative, and said a doctor cleared him for the flight.
A former state lawmaker and 2010 candidate for governor, Emmer in 2014 won the House seat formerly occupied by Michele Bachmann after retooling his political profile away from partisan bomb-throwing and toward a greater emphasis on consensus.
“Tom still minds the store,” said Amy Koch, a former Republican leader in the state Senate who hails from the same political turf. The Sixth District runs along the top of the north Twin Cities metro before shooting northwest to St. Cloud. The deep red counties of Wright and Sherburne help keep it safely Republican.
“It’s the kind of district you could take for granted, but Tom still shows up at the town halls. He still puts up the yard signs,” Koch said.
It’s unusual for a lawmaker with just six years in Congress to take over a caucus campaign arm like the National Republican Congressional Committee, or NRCC.
“I can see Emmer thinking, if not me, then who?” said Annette Meeks, a Minnesota Republican insider whom Emmer chose as his 2010 running mate.
As the fourth-ranking member of the House GOP, Emmer recruited candidates, crafted campaign messages, and kept political donations flowing (though House Democrats have raised far more dollars this cycle).
Controversy has come with the job. This summer, Republican primary voters backed two House candidates with histories of spreading discredited conspiracies linked to the QAnon movement: Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia and Lara Loomer in Florida. Both are running in safe GOP districts and are likely headed to Congress.
“I don’t know why I’d be taking heat for candidates who have been selected through primaries by people on Main Street in their districts,” Emmer said.
Another consequence: conflict with Democratic colleagues, including from Minnesota. The NRCC’s attacks have often taken a mocking tone that mirrors Trump’s political style.
Emmer has had several personal confrontations with Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., over NRCC attacks, most recently against a New Jersey Democratic congressman that resulted in death threats from QAnon supporters. Phillips called the ads “grotesque, irresponsible and dangerous;” Emmer declined to disavow them.
“If one member of Congress is at risk, we all are,” Phillips said. “When one member of Congress receives death threats, we all do.”
Emmer blamed Phillips for the criticism he received about his controversial airplane flight shortly after being in contact with Trump, who contracted the coronavirus. Phillips was also on the plane.
“I’m really disappointed that one of our Minnesota colleagues … made this such a big deal,” Emmer said. Phillips said he didn’t spread the COVID story.
Phillips was one of 41 Democrats who flipped a Republican House seat in 2018, an election viewed as a suburban repudiation of Trump. This year, Democrats are eyeing an additional handful of suburban-to-exurban districts around the country with high numbers of college-educated voters.
“A year ago we thought maybe a 5-10 seat pickup for the Republicans,” said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the Cook Political Report. “Now we’re talking about Republicans losing 5-10 seats, maybe more.”
Wasserman said Trump is the main reason: “Most of the forces at work are beyond Emmer’s control, but I don’t think he showed a lot of creativity in allowing his candidates to rise above the political climate.”
Emmer said he thinks prognosticators are forgetting 2016. “Four years ago some 8.5 million voters that the so-called pollsters somehow didn’t reach walked in from out of the woods and voted for Donald Trump,” he said. Emmer cited higher voter-registration numbers among Republicans and other signs of enthusiasm for Trump.
“Do you see any boat parades just popping up organically for Joe Biden?” he asked, in a reference to the Boaters for Trump, a movement of boat and yacht owners.
Even as he promotes the greater GOP cause, Emmer in his own re-election bid has leaned more to the middle of the road by emphasizing work on mental health support, transportation upgrades and rural infrastructure improvements.
No matter what Sixth District voters decide, the verdict on Emmer for this election cycle will be largely formed by the NRCC’s success or failure.
“When you’re the minority party and the wind is not necessarily at your back, it is a very difficult job,” said Meeks, who was a top aide to former Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s.
“Tom is, what’s the word? Indefatigable,” Meeks said. “He never tires. He just keeps going.”