Donald Trump is gone from the White House, but his influence over the hearts and minds of his strongest supporters remains a potent political force in Minnesota's Republican Party.
"I think he's still the top player in the party," said Billy Grant, a Minnesota-based GOP campaign strategist. "Anyone who is anti-Trump is not going to be winning anything significant in the Republican Party any time soon."
Trump left office in January under the cloud of his false claims of an election rigged against him and the ensuing deadly protest by his supporters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. A small splinter of congressional Republicans joined Democrats in votes to impeach and convict Trump for inciting the riot.
But Republican activists and operatives in Minnesota interviewed for this story said many in the party's base continue to strongly believe Trump when he says the election was stolen, and they are inclined to downplay or even deny the violence at the U.S. Capitol.
"They knocked over some benches," said Don Huizenga, a longtime state GOP activist and an independent contractor from Anoka. "There was no planned coup to overthrow the government. If it was, it was the world's worst coup attempt. To me, it was a protest that got out of hand."
Last week, FBI director Chris Wray called the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol an act of "domestic terrorism." The insurrection left five people dead, including a Capitol police officer, and injured scores of other officers. Some in the crowd marched through the Capitol chanting "hang Mike Pence," and authorities later found explosive devices near the Capitol. More than 300 people who took part in the rioting have so far been charged with federal crimes.
In a speech last weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump made it clear he intends to remain a leading force in Republican politics. He vowed to exact revenge against Republican lawmakers who voted to impeach or convict him by supporting primary challengers, and teased the prospect of a comeback run in 2024.
In that regard, Trump doesn't have any immediate scores to settle in Minnesota. The state's four Republicans in Congress all offered some level of support for Trump-driven claims of voter fraud, and all voted against impeaching him. Reps. Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber were among the minority of House Republicans to vote to certify President Joe Biden's win late on Jan. 6, after the Capitol was stormed.
Despite their votes against impeachment, Minnesota's GOP delegation seems to want to move on from talking about Trump. All four members declined requests for an interview or to provide written comment describing their view of Trump's future role in the GOP.
Emmer chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, leading the GOP effort to retake the House majority. In an interview last week with Politico, Emmer said he hoped Trump would not throw support behind challenges to Republican House members.
"That's not going to be helpful," Emmer said. Saying that he hopes to personally discuss the issue with Trump, Emmer praised the former president's administration and said he "brought a lot of new voters into the Republican Party" — but also said it could imperil the GOP's shot at the majority if Trump works to undermine some Republican incumbents.
A straw poll at CPAC found 68% of those in attendance wanted Trump to run for president again, which was seen as far from dominant. There was much stronger support, 95%, in a poll of whether the Republican Party should continue to pursue Trump's policies — suggesting there's an opening for a candidate with a similar approach but less baggage.
Some prominent Minnesota Republicans have been trying to summon an alternative path forward for the party that doesn't hinge on Trump's grievances.
"Republicans should remain committed to conservatism and populism, but we now also need to embrace modernism … effectively applying conservative principles to modern challenges, realities and opportunities," former Gov. Tim Pawlenty wrote in a Star Tribune opinion piece in January, calling for the party to acknowledge climate change is real and the economic value of "legal, strategic and controlled immigration," and to accept gay rights and same-sex marriage as matters of equality.
Jennifer DeJournett, a Republican organizer and operative in Minnesota, said she sees two major groupings among Minnesota Republicans right now: "You have the people who want the stunt politics. That's more of the grassroots, die-hard crowd; they got to really try it on for size in the Trump era and they realized they liked it," she said.
"The second type is the nonpolitically active Republican voter. You're most likely to find them in the suburbs. Those guys don't like stunt politics," DeJournett said. She estimates that the former group is about three-fourths of self-identified Republican voters in Minnesota. "So I think we're going to keep having trouble in the suburbs if we stick with stunt politics," she said.
It's hard to say whether the final weeks of Trump's presidency drove any Minnesota Republicans from the fold, since the state doesn't have registration by party. No elected Republicans in the state have publicly abandoned the party. The two candidates to lead the state Republican Party, current Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan and state Sen. Mark Koran, have both continued to support Trump.
"Politics has always been a response to what's happening at the moment," said Carleton Crawford, a Minneapolis architect and the state party's deputy chairman. "There are always going to be powerful figures that are dominant for a while, but a party always comes back to responding to the other party. My hope would be even people who had difficulties with Trump will look at us again in response to what they are seeing from the Biden administration and the [Gov. Tim] Walz administration."
Dave Pascoe, an attorney from Carver and the state party's elected secretary, recalled how he came into GOP activism a decade ago through his support for the libertarian Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, who at the time brought an infusion of new blood into Minnesota's Republican base.
"There was a cult of personality movement involved there, and it was the same thing with Trump," Pascoe said. He said many in the Minnesota GOP remain "very, very loyal" to the former president, although Pascoe said he thinks Trump's unproven claims of a rigged election and what he called "the insane excess on January 6" ended up undermining sincere concerns from many Republicans about election integrity.
Huizenga, the Anoka activist, said this of the election outcome: "It doesn't make any sense, and we're going with it." Democrats, he said, "clearly out-dogged us." He hopes Trump isn't done running for office: "Honestly, I hope he comes back in 2024. We'll come out for him in droves."
Staff writer Hunter Woodall contributed to this report.
Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413