ROCHESTER - Phillip Hilleshiem is a strong supporter of Donald Trump, but that doesn’t mean he likes everything the president does and says.
Among the things that make him uneasy are Trump’s attacks on U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and three other House freshmen who are women of color.
The president “can be kind of crude and sometimes racist and rude,” Hilleshiem said. But he doesn’t think Trump “intends to be racist. I think it’s the situations he’s put in, and things don’t always relay as well as they should.”
Hilleshiem, a 26-year-old hotel desk clerk from Elgin, Minn., was at the Olmsted County Fair, a popular crossroads in a county that Trump barely lost in 2016 and would likely need to win in 2020 if he hopes to flip Minnesota.
Interviews with fairgoers last week revealed a partisan split over the Omar feud, which began with a July 14 Trump tweet urging the women to “go back” to the countries they came from and stop “viciously” vilifying him.
Democrats are appalled. “I feel insulted because no one deserves to be treated that way,” said Sigrid Trimble, 70, who was demonstrating how to spin wool into yarn.
There were qualms among Republicans, too. Some said the president’s rhetoric can make them wince and lamented the political divisiveness he generates. Others said Trump’s fight with Omar could help him win Minnesota; still others doubt it will be an issue by next fall.
Democrat Hillary Clinton carried Minnesota in 2016 by just 1.5 percentage points. Trump predicts he’ll win the state in 2020 because of Omar and “the fact that Minnesota is having its best economic year ever,” he tweeted last week. The last Republican to prevail in a presidential election statewide was Richard Nixon in 1972. The state’s 10 electoral votes would help Trump collect the 270 he needs to win.
His chances hinge on counties like this one, which Clinton won by 600 votes. Rochester, the largest city, is trending Democratic. The rest of the county leans Republican.
Olmsted County GOP Chairman Greg Gallas said Trump’s criticism of Omar is awakening a “silent majority” of supporters. “I love it. It’s called winning,” he said.
Trump held a rally in Rochester last October, but Democrats won every statewide race Nov. 6. Republican Jim Hagedorn was elected to the First District U.S. House seat but didn’t carry the county.
To change his fortunes in Minnesota, Trump also would have to retain rural counties he won narrowly in 2016, such as Clay County on the North Dakota border, which he carried by 2 percentage points.
Fred Wright, co-chair of the Clay County GOP, doesn’t expect the Omar controversy to be decisive and said he’s heard “very, very few” people there criticize Trump for it.
“He’s painting the face of the Democratic Party with these individuals,” Wright said, but “it is not based in racism. It’s based more in politics.”
Athena Gracyk, Clay County’s DFL chair, said in a statement that people there are “shocked and offended” by Trump’s ongoing criticism of Omar and her colleagues. But they’re more concerned about Trump policies that directly affect them, such as trade, climate change and the farm economy, she said.
Friction between Omar and Trump peaked at a July 17 rally in North Carolina where the president’s supporters chanted “send her back” — a reference to Omar, the only member of “the Squad” not born in the U.S.
The others are Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
In an earlier tweet, Omar had accused Trump of “stoking white nationalism” and said he had targeted the Squad for fighting his “hate-filled agenda.”
Trump’s rhetoric was widely denounced as racist, but only four Republican U.S. House members — none from Minnesota — voted July 16 for a resolution condemning it.
Trump’s words are seen by many Democrats as a way to motivate white voters, much like his focus on migrant caravans before the 2018 election.
Ken Martin, state DFL Party chair, called Trump’s rhetoric strategic. The more voters talk about his racist language, “the less we’re talking about the failed promises he made to Minnesota voters,” he said. “We need to condemn the action and then we need to move on to talking about the issues” like health care, infrastructure and the economy.
A Fox News poll released Thursday suggested that Trump’s tactics might be backfiring. It found that 63% thought his attacks crossed the line, including a third of Republicans and 73% of suburban women — a key voter bloc.
Jennifer Carnahan, state Republican Party chair, doubts that “this specific kind of back and forth” will be decisive next year. “People are going to be voting on how they feel” closer to Election Day, she said.
Carnahan, a Korean adoptee, said she’s proud of America and doesn’t understand “the negativity and the constant hate” voiced by Omar, including the congresswoman’s criticism of Israel, for which she later apologized but which some regard as having had anti-Semitic undertones.
Fran Bradley, 77, a retired state House member from Rochester, greeted people at the fair’s GOP booth, which featured a life-size cardboard Trump. “I happen to be a policy issues guy,” he said. “If we could focus on those and legitimately disagree, that’s no problem. Get beyond the personal attacks.”
As he watched his daughter Samantha, 14, compete in a keyhole horse race, Scott Brunsvold, 56, of Eyota, Minn., said he’ll probably vote for Trump again. He likes the president’s pro-business policies and thinks allegations about Omar’s tax and immigration history should be investigated.
Accusatory rhetoric is being used by politicians in both parties, said Brunsvold, who works at the Mayo Clinic. He compared Trump to relatives “at a family reunion … talking without caring what they say.”
Aaron Olson echoed those points as he lounged in Emerson Arena near his champion Brown Swiss cow. He called Omar “pretty shady” and predicted that Trump’s criticism will help him with rural voters. A Trump supporter, Olson, 42, farms and works at Geotek.
However uncomfortable he is with some of Trump’s words, Olson said the president “kind of speaks like an everyday person more than a politician.”
Democrats were less forgiving.
Marie Davidiak, 65, a retired psychotherapist from Rochester, said that attacks on Omar will galvanize those who want to oust Trump. Her daughter Carmina Druktainis, 18, a college student, agreed.
Voters in her age group will turn out in big numbers, Druktainis predicted. Targeting Omar, she said, shows that “he’s threatened and he doesn’t know what to do.”
Davidiak added that “presidents should bring people together, and name-calling — there’s no place for that. He’s a divisive man and that’s where he gets his power.”
Rochester resident Mary Anderson, 66, was staffing the DFL booth at the fair. “I don’t think people in Minnesota will tolerate his racism,” she said. “Anybody who claims that he’s not a racist … they’re lying. Or not paying attention. I have no excuse for them anymore.”
Alisha Eiken had a quick reply when she was asked if Trump can win Minnesota. “He has burned every bridge with Minnesotans,” she said. “I also think his blatant racism, it’s completely unacceptable.”
Eiken, 38, was in the fair’s birthing center with her two sons and their cousin. She lives in Byron, Minn., and campaigned against Trump in 2016. “I think people that even voted for him are now shamefaced and they’re starting to realize that this isn’t the world they want to raise their kids in.”