In July, as he threatened widespread immigration raids, President Donald Trump took aim at Minnesota U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and three other minority congresswomen by casting aspersions on the left-leaning urban districts they represent:

“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Trump tweeted.

On Thursday, Trump will bring one of his signature rallies to downtown Minneapolis, ground zero of Omar’s district, where the urban-rural divide underlying his attack will be on full display. Following an intensifying strategy of campaigning against big cities and the Democrats who lead them, Trump is expected to highlight many of the same problems he pointed to this summer when he portrayed Baltimore as a crime-ridden city where residents are “living in hell.”

Depictions of urban ills also have been coming from top Republicans in Minnesota, mainly in reaction to a troubling spike in fatal shootings recently in both Minneapolis and St. Paul.

State Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, the top-ranking Republican in the Minnesota Legislature, said he’s concerned about acts of “senseless” violence in downtown Minneapolis. Jason Lewis, a former GOP congressman running for U.S. Senate, warned Twitter followers of “crime, homelessness and inequality running rampant” under the current Minneapolis leadership.

Minnesota Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan, meanwhile, said in a radio interview that she’s been inundated with e-mails from supporters worried about personal safety ahead of Thursday’s Trump rally at Target Center.

The latest Trump missives on crime were met with criticism from Democrats, who accuse the president and his Minnesota allies of ginning up fear for electoral gain. Democratic-Farmer-Labor Chairman Ken Martin called Republicans’ comments “political opportunism at its worst.”

“It is part of a scare tactic,” said state Sen. Kari Dziedzic, a Minneapolis Democrat who serves as campaign chairwoman of the Senate DFL Caucus. “They’ve used big bad Minneapolis liberals in the past, and they’ll continue doing it.”

Minnesota Republicans say their actions and words are driven by concerns from constituents. In a recent interview, Gazelka recalled an anecdote from an acquaintance who “did not feel safe” while walking downtown after a baseball game. The person said no officers were in the vicinity.

“If that is an overall feeling, at games or concerts or anything like that, that’s a problem,” Gazelka said. “I want to start the dialogue.”

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, says he’s heard similar concerns. Daudt criticized city leaders for opting to “look the other way” on crime and prioritize progressive policies such as adding bike lanes over public safety. He said the issue could be a “huge liability” for Democrats in 2020 if it isn’t addressed.

“It is something that people care about and it is something people vote on,” he said. “If you fear for your safety in public, that’s a huge issue. And it is something that drives public opinion and voting.”

Will issue sway voters?

Some veteran political analysts agree that message could move voters, especially those living in the suburban areas that will likely determine which party controls the state Legislature, and even which presidential candidate wins the state’s 10 Electoral College votes in 2020.

“It’s obviously playing well to run against the cities,” said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University. “It does appeal to suburban voters. The Republicans can say: We’re the party of law and order.”

But Schultz noted that such lines of attack, including those lobbed by the president, have been criticized for tapping into racial subtexts. Anger over that type of rhetoric could mobilize Democrats and voters who live in increasingly diverse communities in and around the cities.

“That’s going to be a great test of Minnesota tolerance come 2020 at this point,” Schultz said. “Do the Trump supporters come out in sufficiently large numbers? Or do essentially the urban liberals, young people and suburban women come out in droves? That’s really the battle line here.”

Violent crime actually down

Recent FBI statistics show that violent crime rates continued to drop both in the Twin Cities and statewide last year, making the metro area among the safest in the nation. But police data indicating a spike in robberies and shootings in downtown Minneapolis this year, coupled with a number of highly visible recent incidents, have fueled political debate. Analysts and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle say the issue is likely to continue to dominate messaging wars as the 2020 election nears, even if the shootings and assaults that marked the late summer and fall subside.

“Anything that gives a suburban person pause for their safety I think ultimately becomes a political issue,” said Gregg Peppin, a longtime GOP political consultant. “Which politician is going to step up? Which political party is going to get the job done on that?”

Gazelka, who lives in Nisswa, has floated the idea of looking at how much local government aid is spent on public safety, but he offered few details.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said lawmakers concerned about crime should pass stricter gun laws and increase overall state funding for public safety. She criticized the GOP for taking a “tried-and-true Trumpian approach of demonize and divide.”

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey called the suggestion that lawmakers could try to link aid to public safety spending “misguided” and “out of bounds.”

“I am attempting to add additional officers to our force, and to the extent that Senator Gazelka and the GOP wants to assist in that effort, I’m all for it,” he said, citing his budget proposal to hire 14 additional officers. “However, to the extent they want to try and determine where the money goes, I think that’s a massive overstep.”

Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, is part of a group of local business officials urging city lawmakers to boost law enforcement’s presence downtown. He said “anything that might politicize this issue is a distraction from what we have to focus on right now, which is making our city and our downtown as safe as it possibly can be.”


Staff writer Miguel Otárola contributed to this report.