Minnesota Republicans adjust to reality of Trump atop their ticket

Donald Trump speaks after Indiana primary win
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is joined by his wife Melania, right, daughter Ivanka, left, and son Eric, background left, as he speaks during a primary night news conference on Tuesday.
Mary Altaffer | AP

Minnesota Republicans now know Donald Trump is their presidential nominee-in-waiting. While many have kept their distance from the controversial candidate, they must now navigate an election cycle where he'll be their party's lead voice.

Some in the GOP who'll be on November's ballot say they'll play the hand they've been dealt and try to keep the focus on local concerns. Others aren't saying anything at all after condemning Trump for months.

Trump barreled through a field of prominent Republicans on the road to a nomination he now has all but locked up. But the billionaire businessman didn't fare so well in Minnesota, where he was a distant third in the March precinct caucuses.

Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt is a national convention delegate but says his top aim this November is preserving a GOP majority in the Minnesota House. House Republicans will work with Trump's team to the extent they have to, he added.

Kurt Daudt presides as the 2016 session begins.
Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt
Jim Mone | AP

"We're excited for this election season and frankly we're going to set our own destiny and not rely on anybody," said Daudt, R-Zimmerman.

Daudt first backed Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to win the GOP nomination. Walker was gone long before the March 1 Minnesota caucuses, so Daudt said he voted then for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. After Rubio dropped out, Daudt joined a slate that was pushed by the Cruz campaign.

Asked if he'd now be supporting Trump, Daudt was coy.

"I don't know that my support matters all that much. And I haven't been vocal about supporting anybody since Gov. Walker got out of the race," he said. "I also don't believe people will make a decision about who to vote for based on who I'm going to vote for."

A Minneapolis Star Tribune poll this week had Clinton ahead of Trump in a state head-to-head matchup. A Republican hasn't won Minnesota's electoral votes since 1972, so any nominee was looking at a steep climb.

But Daudt and other Republicans point out that Hillary Clinton poses problems for Democrats, too. She got drubbed in Minnesota's caucuses by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

It's too soon to count Trump out, said Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.

"What we've been hearing the past year is that Mr. Trump can't win. He can't possibly win. It's just impossible for him to win. But he's winning and keeps winning by bigger margins," Hann said. "I think the sentiment that he can't win a general election is probably suspect as well. And we'll see what happens. There's a long way to go. And if he's the nominee, of course I'm going to support the Republican nominee."

Even if Trump doesn't win the state or keep it competitive, some longtime Republicans says he could shuffle some races such as the Minnesota 8th Congressional District rematch between incumbent U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democrat, and challenger Stewart Mills.

Trump's protectionist view on trade will resonate in northeastern Minnesota where the steel industry has suffered in the face of cheap Chinese exports, said Kent Kaiser, who teaches a course on political communication at the University of Northwestern in Roseville.

Kaiser, who holds deep personal ties to the 8th District and Republican politics, said he believes Trump's blunt, populist style will help draw the region's voters to him who might also back other Republicans in the area.

"I think he's going to be able to go up there and he will be able to lure a lot of voters because he's not going to put up with that kind of political correctness and doublespeak that you often hear from the Democratic candidates on the environment and mining," he said.

Democrats contend Trump will boost their chances in races for congressional seats now held by Republicans. That includes the Minnesota 3rd Congressional District seat held by fourth-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen and the Minnesota 2nd Congressional District seat being vacated by retiring U.S. Rep. John Kline.

Paulsen's office issued a statement through his campaign manager: "Like a lot of voters, Erik has problems with both Trump and Clinton but expects to vote for the nominee."

Republicans defending seats in the Legislature won't be able to easily get out of Trump's shadow, added House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.

"He is the representative, nationally the representative of their party. Either they have to go along and support Donald Trump or make very clear to their constituents why they're not supporting the nominee of their party," Thissen said. "It's pretty clear Donald Trump doesn't represent where most Minnesotans are."

One legislator firmly in the no-Trump camp is state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. He's blasted Trump relentlessly on Twitter. He's called Trump senile and incompetent and compared Trump's campaign to an hourly proctology exam.

https://twitter.com/PatGarofalo/status/723599884893310976

Just last week, Garofalo predicted a "Hiroshima-like down ballot disaster if Trump is GOP nominee."

But the day after Trump's big Indiana win Garofalo was uncharacteristically mum, declining any comment now or, he said, over the next six months.

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