DULUTH — President Donald Trump flew into Duluth on June 20 amid a firestorm over an immigration policy, but in the Amsoil Arena that night, he found a cathartic release in the thousands of supporters crowding the stage for his rally.
The president’s rallies during low times — putting him in his comfort zone of big crowds and showmanship — aren’t out of the ordinary, though the timing of Trump’s visit and the recent backlash his administration was receiving over separating families at U.S. border crossings was coincidental.
Choosing Duluth was not. Trump won the 8th Congressional District in 2016 by 26 points over Hillary Clinton and lost the state by about 1.5 percent. Trump was the first Republican to carry the Iron Range since the 1930s and took 78 of 86 counties in the state.
“I hate to bring this up,” Trump said, predicting a 2020 victory for Republicans. “But we came this close to winning the state of Minnesota. And in two and a half years it’s going to be really easy I think … I thought I was going to do it but I needed one more visit, one more speech.”
A Republican hasn’t won Minnesota since Richard Nixon in 1972. It’s a state that famously painted itself blue when its own Walter Mondale ran in 1984, when incumbent Ronald Reagan won electoral votes for the other 49 states.
Minnesota as a battleground state in the national political scene is something of a throwback. In the 8th District, playing the role of a swing seat in the U.S. House is becoming much more familiar territory. As an incumbent, Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan won in 2016 by just 0.6 percent, though he outperformed Trump on the Range, in what turned out as one of the most expensive House races in the nation.
Nolan is running for lieutenant governor in 2018, opening the field for Republican Pete Stauber (and primary opponent Harry Welty) and five Democrats — Kirsten Kennedy, Michelle Lee, Jason Metsa, Joe Radinovich and Soren Sorensen — none of whom were endorsed by DFL.
Trump’s swing through Minnesota was as much about rallying his supporters as it was combatting the so-called blue wave that flipped a Senate seat in Alabama, but is slowing in momentum in recent weeks.
“Our republican prospects in Minnesota are the brightest they’ve been in over a decade,” said state GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan. “Minnesota is perhaps the biggest battleground state in the midterm and we are on the national map in a very big way.”
But the president’s visit and reception in Duluth also represents the changing and complicated relationship he’s had with Minnesota Republicans. Carnahan was a Jeb Bush-turned-Marco Rubio supporter before coming around to Trump. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is running for his old seat, voted for Trump but also called him “unhinged and unfit” for the presidency.
In Duluth, Carnahan praised the “positive change” Trump brought to office. Pawlenty did not attend the rally, sending running mate and Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach, but warmly welcomed the president on Twitter earlier in the day.
Minnesota’s DFLers that rallied outside the arena are attempting to follow the early formula for blue wave success — a head-on battle with Trump and policies.
“His values and what he’s peddling is not Minnesota, it’s not American values,” said DFL Chair Ken Martin at the “Blue Wave Rise and Resist Rally” last week.
How their strategy plays out in the 8th District will have to wait until November, but th August primaries could provide some hints. The DFL convention earlier this month endorsed a progressive crop of candidates including the Erin Murphy-Erin Maye Quade team for governor and Matt Pelikan for attorney general. Murphy and Quade, two Minnesota state representatives, will square off in August against Congressman Tim Walz and running mate State Rep. Peggy Flanagan, as well as current Attorney General Lori Swanson and Nolan, her running mate.
An early visit from the president is not only an emphatic stamp for Stauber in his primary, but possibly an early boost as the five Democrats battle for the nomination. He’s aligned himself with Trump as recent Gallup polls have shown his approval rating at 45 percent, the highest of his administration.
The core message is closely aligned: fewer regulations to open up a better economy and more jobs.
“Jobs are up, unemployment numbers are at a historic low, small businesses and manufacturers are surging and optimism is at an all-time high,” Stauber said at the rally. “My blue collar common sense conservative message is resonating throughout the 8th District.”
Republicans have long sought to use mining as the wedge between the parties, but found a tougher climb with Nolan in the race. DFLers in the 8th District have largely united behind a vocal support of mining this cycle even as Lee, a former TV news anchor, has opposed new copper-nickel projects and the DFL convention delegates narrowly defeated Resolution 68 to officially oppose copper-nickel mining in the state.
Kennedy, Metsa and Radinovich have broadly sided with mining and the current environmental review process. Metsa and Stauber have the advantage not only geographically on the Range — Metsa being from Virginia and Stauber from Hermantown — but also in having on-the-record votes for the mining industry and some deregulations, most recently wild rice standards.
The DFL wants to push the conversation to pensions and health care, issues that propelled Nolan in other parts of the district, and erase mining as a swing issues.
But there is evidence the GOP is having some success using mining to corral labor Democrats.
Even as the industry is back in full swing after a set of tariffs pushed by Nolan and instituted by Democratic President Barack Obama, the region is swooning over Trump’s own set of tariffs on steel and aluminum and his decision to restore mineral leases to Twin Metals Minnesota, a company prospecting an underground copper-nickel mine near Ely.
“It’s really strange,” said Eveleth Mayor Bob Vlaisavljevich, a Democrat-turned-Republican, to The New York Times. “A billionaire from New York is the one saving us.”