Minnesota, which once looked like a vanity project for Donald Trump, is suddenly emerging as a critical test of his effort to turn his campaign around.
Interviews with more than a dozen officials and strategists from both parties in recent days depict a state in which Joe Biden is leading, but where the president is making inroads in rural Minnesota.
Public surveys and internal polling by Democrats and Republicans alike in recent weeks has suggested the race is narrowing, though with Biden still ahead. In a sign of its increasingly competitive nature, Biden today will begin airing his first television ads in the state, in the Twin Cities as well as Duluth and Rochester markets. And last week, Biden included Minnesota in a list of battleground states he said he wants to visit — travel that suggests the state is far from a lock.
“It’s tightening up,” said Ken Martin, chairman of Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. “But I wouldn’t trade our position with theirs in a million years.”
In the run-up to the 2016 election, Minnesota seemed like a stretch for Trump. No Republican had carried the state since Richard Nixon in 1972, and Trump made minimal effort there. Even so, Trump came close to victory, carrying 78 of Minnesota’s 87 counties and losing the state by fewer than 45,000 votes.
Following the election, Trump said he regretted not doing more. The state’s 10 electoral votes — the same number as neighboring Wisconsin — became an enduring source of infatuation for him.
He’s still preoccupied with his near-miss four years later.
“One more speech, I would have won,” Trump told a crowd recently in Mankato, a small college town in southern Minnesota. “It was so close.”
This time, his campaign has poured staff into the state, creating an operational footprint that Democrats only recently eclipsed. He reserved millions of dollars in TV time for a fall ad blitz, and seized on protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis — the state’s liberal stronghold — as a springboard for his broader law-and-order campaign.
Jeff Johnson, the Republican who defeated former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in the gubernatorial primary in 2018 before losing to Democrat Tim Walz in the general election, said, “It almost seems personal for him, that he came close and they didn’t put a tremendous effort into Minnesota [in 2016].”
This year, he said, “There’s no question he has a shot of winning.”
If Trump has a path forward in Minnesota, it will likely rely on an improvement in the Twin Cities suburbs, combined with spiking turnout in rural areas of the state. It’s a tall task, but there is reason for Democrats to be concerned. By the party’s own estimates, there are 250,000 white, non-college-educated men in Minnesota who are eligible to vote but aren’t registered, a rich target for Trump.
Trump may find some of those voters in the rural western reaches of the state; Trump won every county west of Minneapolis’ Hennepin County. But his greater opportunity for growth appears to be in northeastern Minnesota, in and around the blue-collar, ancestrally Democratic Iron Range.
The region has been targeted for extra attention. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, visited Duluth Pack, a bag- and pack-making company, in July. The appearance sparked resentment in Democratic-heavy Duluth, with some customers cutting patches off of their bags in protest.
Last week, Eveleth Mayor Robert Vlaisavljevich, who described himself as a lifelong Democrat, addressed the Republican National Committee on Trump’s behalf. Scott Dane, executive director of Associated Contract Loggers and Truckers of Minnesota, did, too. And on Friday, the day after the Republican National Convention concluded, Vice President Mike Pence visited Duluth, the most populous city in northern Minnesota.
Flanked by shipping containers draped with banners that read, “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” Pence said, “The road to victory begins in Duluth, Minnesota, and we’re going to win this state on Nov. 3.”
Much of the Trump campaign’s effort in northeastern Minnesota is focused on mining and its economic impacts in the region. On telephone calls and in door-to-door campaigning, canvassers for Trump are criticizing Biden for declining to take positions on a controversial proposal to replace a crude oil pipeline in the state and on a plan to build a copper-nickel mine at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
But there are cultural issues at work, as well. Following Floyd’s death and the resulting protests, Larry Cuffe Jr., a former Democrat and the mayor of small town Virginia, said he planted a “Support Law Enforcement and First Responders” sign in his lawn. The centering of Minnesota’s population growth in and around the more progressive Twin Cities metropolitan area has created friction between urban Democrats and their outstate counterparts in recent years.
“It’s concerning, all the violence that’s going on in Minneapolis and the lack of support for police in the metropolitan area,” said Cuffe, one of several Iron Range mayors who have endorsed Trump.
On issues ranging from mining to gun control and criminal justice, Cuffe said, “The Democratic platform has moved further and further to the left, and the Democrats who I grew up with … they’re left out in the lurch. … What we stand for, and me being a former Democrat for many years, we stand for our flag and we’re proud Americans and we kneel to pray.”
Democrats have been aggressively organizing in the state, including in northeast Minnesota. The DFL broke fundraising records last year, and in the days since the Democratic National Convention alone, the Biden campaign has held nearly 50 virtual organizing events in Minnesota.
The two ads Biden will start airing today in Minnesota focus on the economy and the coronavirus. And labor organizers and Democratic strategists believe that in the Iron Range and elsewhere, the health and economic wreckage of the pandemic is likely to pull Trump down below levels he hit in 2016.
“I think voters are going to remember they’re not better off now than they were four years ago,” said Ron Harris, chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Midwest caucus.
Even Republicans acknowledge Trump is facing headwinds in Minnesota, shedding support in the suburbs and among women as he has nationally. Biden is a less polarizing nominee than Hillary Clinton, who drew nearly 180,000 fewer votes in Minnesota than President Barack Obama in 2012. And turnout rates in the state are historically among the highest in the nation, leaving Minnesota less susceptible to the kind of low-turnout election that might benefit Trump.
Michael Brodkorb, a former deputy chair of the Minnesota Republican Party, said Trump’s campaign is probably “miscalculating why the race was close in ‘16, and I don’t think it necessarily extrapolates now.”
In 2016, he said, “there were a lot of frustrated Democrats who decided to sit home.”
In fact, Trump’s memory of a close finish in 2016 doesn’t account for the lessons of the statewide election two years later, when Walz beat Johnson by nearly 300,000 votes.
Democrats that year reclaimed 10 of the 19 counties that flipped from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. And the distribution of the vote carried ominous signs for Trump. In and around Minneapolis-St. Paul, Walz ran the Democratic vote total up so high that Johnson could not come close to making up for it in rural Minnesota.
For Trump, said Rick Kahn, who has advised Walz and was a longtime friend and campaign treasurer to the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, “It’s not in the math.”
“If you look at the math,” he said, “the votes just aren’t there.”