Hours before President Donald Trump’s rally in Bemidji on Friday, Democratic challenger Joe Biden flew to Duluth to meet with union members who could be a bulwark of DFL support in an increasingly Republican swath of northern Minnesota.
While Biden met with a handful of labor leaders at the Jerry Alander Carpenter Training Center in Hermantown, the Trump campaign organized a large airport rally in Bemidji, an area that supported him overwhelmingly in 2016, though he narrowly lost the state to Hillary Clinton.
Biden’s carefully choreographed small group encounter required face masks and marked places to sit and stand to ensure social distancing; Trump’s boisterous outdoor rally brought together a crowd of several thousand, most of them not wearing masks.
The same-day visits to Minnesota by two major-party presidential candidates marked the start of early voting in a Midwestern battleground state that both campaigns see as potentially decisive in November. Trump’s arrival in the afternoon also coincided with the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an event that could have an unpredictable impact on the race.
“It’s time to take the country back folks, and it’s going start here, today, with voting in Minnesota,” Biden said in remarks before Ginsburg’s death was announced. He was making his first appearance in the state as the Democratic nominee.
Biden’s tour of the union training center was meant to underscore his plan to promote American-made goods.
While talking to carpenters and receiving a welding demonstration, Biden said, “This is the stuff that’s going to put a lot of people to work.” He also talked about his “made in America” mandate for federal procurement. “It has to be made in the United States of America,” he said.“For real.”
Trump also emphasized job creation, particularly on the Iron Range. “We’re going to win Minnesota because they did nothing for Minnesota except close up that beautiful iron ore territory. … I came along and I opened it up,” Trump said.
The president also claimed that Biden would flood the state with refugees from developing countries, an echo of his previous attacks on U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who came to the country as a refugee from Somalia.
“Are you having a good time with your refugees?” Trump asked. As a supporter shouted “Omar!” he continued, “Omar, that’s a beauty. How the hell did she win the election?” The crowd cheered and he went on to say of Omar and Democratic colleagues Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “We’ll prosecute them.’’
Bemidji is the county seat of Beltrami County, the first in Minnesota to reject refugee resettlement.
Trump’s off-the-cuff speech stretched nearly two hours and touched on a hodgepodge of topics ranging from Hillary Clinton’s e-mails to a recounting of the battlefield success of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee “except at Gettysburg.’’
Throughout, he was unaware of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, which presents Trump the opportunity to cement a right-leaning court, though some crowd members tried to shout the news.
Trump briefly defended his handling of the pandemic, but largely stayed away from mentioning the virus that has killed nearly 200,000 Americans this year.
In a 40-minute speech after his training center tour, Biden focused heavily on jobs, labor and infrastructure, pledging to make union workers the centerpiece of the post-pandemic economic recovery.
“I’ll fight — fight for workers and unions every step of the way,” he said.
Biden also contrasted his working-class roots to Trump’s wealthy upbringing in New York City. “I think this campaign is between Scranton and Park Avenue,” he said in a reference to his boyhood home in Pennsylvania. The former vice president criticized Trump as a divisive and “vindictive” leader, saying he prioritized tax cuts for the wealthy instead of helping working people.
Taylor Johnson, an instructor at the training center, said he was glad to see Biden highlight his commitment to labor and talk about Trump trade and tariff policies that have hurt some industries in the region, particularly agriculture. “It’s good to remind people here what they did,” he said.
Speaking alongside Biden were Minnesota U.S. Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar, whose family has roots on the Iron Range.
Smith is in a re-election race against former congressman Jason Lewis, who spoke at the Trump rally.
Biden later made two unannounced stops in Duluth, one at a fire station and another near the waterfront, where he greeted voters with Gov. Tim Walz.
“I feel very good about Minnesota; I feel very good about Wisconsin,” Biden told reporters afterward. “I feel very good about the Midwest generally.”
Before Biden arrived, the Trump campaign released a letter from three Iron Range mayors extolling the president’s support for mining: “As a result of the Trump Administration’s policies, our communities were given a much needed shot in the arm so that our towns can roar back to life — and there is no one we Rangers trust to bring about the great American comeback more than President Donald Trump,”
The letter was signed by Mayors Chris Vreeland of Hoyt Lakes, Kathy Brandau of Winton and Tony Nygaard of McKinley.
Both campaigns encountered protests. In Hermantown, Biden was greeted by a few dozen Trump supporters waving flags and signs set up along the road outside the training center. In Bemidji, a crowd of Biden supporters waving signs and flags lined the main drag hours before Trump’s arrival.
Trump’s supporters at the airport on a warm autumn day were enthusiastic. Scott Ingram and his teenage son, Jack, waited in line for hours for their chance to see the president. “He loves this country,” said Ingram, 49, who drove from Thief River Falls and was excited to be in a crowd of people who agree. “I’ve never felt so American.”
The crowd moved through security lines with little regard for social distancing or masking. Sandy Guyan said she had been at the front of the line when Trump’s 2018 Duluth rally reached capacity. On Friday the Bemidji woman was poised to see the president after being on her feet all day as a rally volunteer.
“We need to make this state red,” Guyan said. “I think there is a chance.”