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Patricia Lopez: Trump will need more than bluster to turn Minnesota red

Patricia Lopez, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Op Eds

Former President Donald Trump, on a rare day off from his hush money trial, made a bold claim when he headlined a fundraiser for the Minnesota Republican Party last weekend, declaring, “We’re going to win this state.” He wanted, he said, a landslide “that is too big to rig.”

That is the tallest of orders in a state that hasn’t voted Republican in a presidential contest since Richard Nixon in 1972.

It’s also unlikely to happen this time.

Trump’s bluster glosses over some essential facts. Democrats hold every statewide office here. The last Republican elected statewide was Governor Tim Pawlenty, who was reelected in 2006, by the narrowest of margins. The state hasn’t elected a Republican to the US Senate in 22 years. While rural Minnesota has turned reliably red, the most populous part of the state — the Twin Cities metropolitan area — is decidedly blue.

During the 2022 midterms, when Republicans here were predicting a “red wave,” Democrats won a trifecta — control of the state House, Senate and governor’s office.

In recent years the state Republican Party has been plagued with infighting and mismanagement that gutted its fundraising capability. At the close of the last year, the organization had just $145,000 cash on hand and was hobbled by more than $400,000 in debt.

The state party’s convention, which was once three days chock-full of events, speakers, parties and after-parties, was trimmed to just two this year. The electric atmosphere and bustle of past conventions was mostly absent, as were the miles of patriotic bunting, candidate signs and flurry of flags that typically festoon such events. Instead, a lone outsized American flag dominated the stage.

Trump’s fundraiser on the first day of the convention provided a badly needed financial boost to the party that will allow its finances to be out of the red for the first time in a decade. Even that effort was aided by a last minute by a $100,000 donation from the campaign of Minnesota Representative Tom Emmer, the House majority whip.

While Trump’s fundraiser technically “sold out,” that too is a bit of hyperbole. A longtime delegate to the state party convention, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, said that many of the tickets were discounted, some heavily. “It can be more important to say you sold out the room than to get top dollar,” he noted — especially when dealing with Trump.

As he spoke, he surveyed the downtown St. Paul convention hall that was more than two-thirds empty on the day when delegates were to endorse a candidate in the US Senate race — typically a premier event that would pack the room.

When the time came to endorse in the Senate contest, the crowd, dotted with delegates wearing QAnon buttons and bejeweled “Let’s Go Brandon” pins, rejected Joe Fraser, a 25-year Navy veteran and former intelligence officer. Instead, they chose onetime NBA player turned far-right MAGA conspiracy theorist Royce White. White, a former Black Lives Matter protester with a history of legal issues, has made the rounds of the extremist talk show circuit, including Alex Jones’ Infowars and Steve Bannon’s War Room. In fact, White was introduced via video by the former Trump adviser. If he wins the primary, White would take on Senator Amy Klobuchar, chair of the powerful Senate Rules Committee and one of the most popular politicians in the state.

It wasn’t always this way for the Minnesota Republican Party. It was once a well-funded machine with a fearsome ground game and powerhouse candidates.

In 2008, Roll Call described Minnesota’s state Republican and Democratic parties as “two of the strongest operations of their kind in the country.” Elections then were like watching a cage match. Each side had their billionaire donors, a heavily used state matching funds program and armies of organized foot soldiers to turn out the vote.

 

I sat down with State Republican Party Chairman David Hann, a former state lawmaker working hard to rebuild his party. His strategy: Anchor turnout in the rural areas that have been turning redder for some time. Pick off enough votes in the Democratic stronghold of Minneapolis/St. Paul and surrounding suburbs so that “we don’t lose by as much.” Polls have shown Trump and President Joe Biden running neck and neck here, Hann notes, and Trump is showing surprising strength among Black men and Hispanics — trends Hann hopes to capitalize on.

Lastly, Hann wants to encourage mail-in and early voting. He acknowledges that the party still lacks resources, bemoaning that “all the billionaires have gone to the Democrats,” but maintains that following up to ensure those who have requested ballots turn them in is a low-dollar effort that could yield big results. “We know some of our people requested ballots last time but never turned them in,” he said.

Of course, Trump’s continued disdain for anything other than same-day voting could hinder that effort as well.

Trump came within 1.5 percentage points — less than 45,000 votes — of beating Hillary Clinton here in 2016. But in 2020, Biden won the state by more than 7 percentage points — more than 200,000 votes.

When I spoke with Ken Martin, head of the state’s Democratic Party, he acknowledged that he’s concerned about Trump’s chances, partly because he takes nothing for granted, and partly because of the late Senator Paul Wellstone — a revered progressive icon— and his frequent reminders about the fast-changing nature of political “winds and tides.” Martin also pointed out that Biden’s decisive 2020 win came during the pandemic, when the Democrats’ fabled ground game was largely disabled. This time, Martin said, he’s prepared to blanket the state.

Minnesota also has a well-established predilection for third-party candidates, from Governor Floyd B. Olson, a Farmer-Laborite in the early 1930s, to Reform Party Governor Jesse Ventura. This year, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s third-party bid could prove another complicating factor. He has until mid-August to get on the Minnesota ballot.

Martin noted that a key difference in the last election cycle was that Biden invested heavily in Minnesota in 2020, unlike Clinton in 2016.

Is Trump prepared to flood the state with money and resources to compensate for a party struggling with yet another rebuilding year? There has been little indication of that to date. Biden should not take Minnesota for granted — it’s come too close to flipping in the past. But it’s going to take a lot more than bluster for Trump to win this state.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Patricia Lopez is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. She is a former member of the editorial board at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where she also worked as a senior political editor and reporter.


©2024 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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