The election night gathering for former Vice President Joe Biden at Elsie’s in northeast Minneapolis could easily have been mistaken for another Tuesday night bowling excursion.
There, in the cavernous bar, restaurant and 16-lane bowling alley, about 30 people gathered to watch the results of Super Tuesday, when Biden won Minnesota and nine other states.
The magnitude of the victory belied the small group gathered around Corey Day, Biden’s sole paid staffer in Minnesota for the several months leading up to Super Tuesday.
Aided by an endorsement from Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who dropped out of the race on the eve of the primary, Biden easily carried a state where he had never appeared as a 2020 candidate, and where he still has negligible campaign infrastructure. If Biden wins the Democratic nomination, that will have to change.
“This is going to be a purple state,” Day said in an interview. He foresees a political smackdown in the heartland: “I expect a year like 2004, when you had huge campaign teams for President Bush and John Kerry fighting it out for all the real estate.”
Once again the national front-runner, Biden has yet to develop the sort of statewide organization that’s likely to be necessary come the general election contest against President Donald Trump.
The Republican narrowly lost Minnesota in 2016. He has since vowed repeatedly to make it a 2020 battleground.
Biden’s victory on Tuesday was all the more surprising in that his top rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, won the state’s Democratic caucuses four years ago and maintained a movement of die-hard supporters since.
In contrast, Biden has no built-in grassroots support in Minnesota beyond the volunteers he might inherit from Klobuchar and the other Democratic contenders who exited the race.
His advisers say that will come in time. Day, at least for now, is off the Biden payroll, though he said he’d continue to work with volunteers.
And first, Biden must win the nomination, which will keep his campaign focused on the next 32 states that go to the polls, starting on Tuesday with Michigan, another Midwestern battleground.
Biden held his own on Super Tuesday against Sanders in some urban DFL strongholds, and he tallied big wins in the suburbs and GOP-leaning parts of greater Minnesota.
A similar model underpinned Democratic rebounds in statewide and congressional races in 2018 and has also long been Klobuchar’s model for electoral success.
“He showed strength everywhere in Minnesota. We know he’s doing well with African-Americans, did well in the suburbs and he appeared to do better with the white working class, which is a part of Bernie’s coalition that he started to tip into,” said Adam Duininck, a one-time DFL strategist who’s now director of government affairs for the carpenters union in Minnesota. “If he’s able to run a campaign at that audience and build the operational strength, he’s likely to do well here.”
But the fight for the Democratic nomination is not over, and for now Biden’s and Sanders’ teams have moved on.
Day said he expects the campaign will staff up again in Minnesota later in the year.
Meanwhile, Trump Victory, a joint effort of Trump’s re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee, has been steering resources toward Minnesota, where it has a state director and other staff in place.
“We never really left after 2016,” said Preya Samsundar, spokeswoman for Trump Victory for Minnesota and Iowa.
Trump came within about 44,000 votes of winning Minnesota in the last election, and he’s been back four times since.
Trump’s 2016 campaign came with a tiny Minnesota staff. Samsundar said that won’t be the case this time: “We’re going to have the largest staff on the ground ever in Minnesota” compared with past Republican presidential campaigns, she said, though she won’t reveal how many paid employees it now has working in the state.
Republicans say the last-minute nature of Biden’s win in Minnesota means he didn’t have to spend any time developing the kind of state-specific pitch that voters are likely to expect in November.
“Right now his only message is, ‘I’m not Bernie Sanders,’ ” said Annette Meeks, a veteran Minnesota Republican operative. “That doesn’t get you anywhere in Willmar or Warroad.”
Although Biden still has no operation in Minnesota, the DFL and its allies do.
And while the state party isn’t taking sides in the nominating battle, the campaign against Trump is revving up. Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a DFL-aligned spending group, launched what it said is a seven-figure digital campaign last week that takes aim at Trump on issues like health care and immigration.
More help could come from former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who dropped out of the race on Wednesday and endorsed Biden.
Bloomberg had been spending heavily in states, including Minnesota, where he opened five offices and hired a sizable staff.
Bloomberg’s team is reportedly considering how best to deploy its resources to help Biden and hurt Trump, though they have not specifically committed to Minnesota.
Klobuchar, widely discussed as a potential Biden running mate, is also positioned to lend a big hand. Biden cited her endorsement as key to his victory in Minnesota, and the three-term senator planned to spend part of the weekend campaigning for him in Michigan.
Though not on the Minnesota ballot again until 2024, she also is expected to maintain a more robust political operation in Minnesota than in past years when she was not running.
“We have a team that will be ready to help,” said Justin Buoen, who ran Klobuchar’s presidential campaign. Buoen was spotted Tuesday night at the Biden event at Elsie’s. “They definitely won’t be starting from zero,” Buoen said.