President Donald Trump is bullish about his re-election chances in Minnesota despite the state’s long history of backing Democrats for president.
With a visit to a Burnsville trucking company Monday afternoon to talk taxes, Trump also lays down a marker for 2020 in a state whose 10 electoral votes he’s long seen as winnable.
Winning Minnesota is “going to be really, really easy, I think,” the Republican said at a Duluth rally last year, after reminding supporters how close he came in 2016.
Kevin Poindexter, executive director of the Minnesota Republican Party, said the national GOP under Trump will make Minnesota a priority in 2020.
“This is going to be a targeted state like you’ve never seen before by Republicans,” he said.
It will be Trump’s first public appearance in the Twin Cities since he became president. He’s headed to the politically pivotal suburbs for a roundtable discussion on the tax cuts and the Minnesota economy.
Minnesota’s pickup potential was on Trump’s mind even before the 2016 election, when he fell just over 44,000 votes short of Democrat Hillary Clinton. David FitzSimmons, at the time chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, said he had a brief exchange with Trump at an August 2016 fundraiser in Minneapolis after Emmer introduced the two.
“He said, ‘I think I can win here but my people are saying I can’t. What do you think?’ ” FitzSimmons recalled. His advice back, FitzSimmons said, was that it would be possible with enough money and time spent in the state, but that he didn’t know enough about the situation in other states to tell Trump for sure if that was a good bet.
“He goes, ‘OK, good answer,’ ” FitzSimmons said.
Trump went on to make a last-minute appearance in Minnesota the weekend before the election. He has since said multiple times in public that he thinks he could have carried the state with one additional visit.
Minnesota has the longest unbroken record of Democratic wins at the presidential level, dating to 1976, but several other Upper Midwest states — Wisconsin, Michigan — that reliably backed Democrats for president broke for Trump instead in 2016.
“I do think 2016 was a lesson in Democrats taking Minnesota for granted as a solidly blue state,” said Jeff Blodgett, a longtime Democratic strategist who managed President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign in Minnesota. Though Clinton prevailed on the strength of her support in the Twin Cities, Trump’s huge winning margins outstate helped Republicans take over the state Senate.
Democratic strategists in Minnesota are confident about protecting their streak next year, especially given the party’s big statewide wins in last year’s midterm elections. But Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party, said that Democrats can’t assume anything.
Trump “really does seem to be fixated in a way on flipping this state,” Martin said. In last year’s midterms, he said, “we saw a lot of effort and resources spent on this state that we hadn’t seen in many years from national Republicans.”
To Martin, that was a sign that the national Republican Party is laying the groundwork for a bigger push in Minnesota next year.
Trump’s campaign is certain to be well-funded, and Poindexter said the Minnesota GOP will leverage sophisticated get-out-the-vote efforts undertaken by Republicans at the national level.
“We’ll be able to give our activists and our volunteers the tools and support they need to make sure that we get every last voter that’s supportive to the polls to vote for the president and Republicans,” Poindexter said.
Martin said last year, two important national Democratic groups — the Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — pulled financial resources from Minnesota because they were so confident of the party’s prospects on the statewide level. Democrats did win the gubernatorial and Senate races, but Martin is worried that a similar overconfidence could leave his party hurting for national help next year.
“Trump is going to be on the ballot. That’s the piece we didn’t have in 2018,” Martin said. “With Trump on the ballot again, you’re going to see as fevered and riled-up a Republican base as you’ve ever seen. That’s what suggests to me that despite our victories in 2018, that 2020 is not going to be an easy election.”
Trump also benefits in that he forged an Electoral College win last time without Minnesota.
“You kind of get to play with house money in Minnesota,” FitzSimmons said. The Trump campaign “can make a play for it and in a way it’s no cost to them, because the Republicans can win without Minnesota nationally but arguably Democrats cannot.”
At least in the early going, he said, “it keeps Democrats guessing.”
That could change once Democrats pick their nominee. Sen. Amy Klobuchar criticized Trump over the GOP tax plan on Sunday.
“The tax bill that he passed that he is here to celebrate tomorrow doesn’t invest in things like infrastructure,” Klobuchar said. “Instead, it gives a disproportionate amount of that tax money to the wealthy.”
If Klobuchar gets the Democratic nomination, Minnesota would be an even tougher haul for Trump. But Klobuchar at the moment remains in single digits in national and early state polls of the crowded Democratic field.
No matter who the Democratic nominee is, strategists from both parties see the Midwest as crucial to the 2020 outcome. If Democrats can take back Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania or Ohio, and hold the other states that Clinton won, then Trump loses. By next year, both Trump and his opponent will be looking for maximum impact in allocating hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign resources.
Scott Cottington, a Minnesota-based Republican political consultant who has worked with campaigns around the country, said that Minnesota might come to look like a stretch if more traditionally Republican states are at risk.
“How does he carry Minnesota without devoting a bunch of resources to it?” Cottington said. “If you’re trying to build a presidential campaign, you have a finite amount of resources and you have to decide where it most makes sense to expend them. That will be the question.”
Blodgett said Democrats shouldn’t assume Trump will eventually write off Minnesota.
“I think we should take him seriously” Blodgett said. “Their campaign has a lot of money and they’re a pretty sophisticated operation and we should not take those challenges lightly.”