Trump's northern Minnesota backers keep the faith, for now

A Trump sign sits along Hwy. 2 in Erskine.
In Erskine last fall, Trump's northern Minnesota supporters made their views clear in a big way.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2016

Voters like Theresa Aho drove Donald Trump's success last year across northern Minnesota, putting him closer to winning the state than any Republican presidential candidate in decades.

Aho said she was looking for "something different" last fall when she opted for Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton. Nine months later, though, she offered a lukewarm appraisal of the president's performance, so far: "Not as good as I was hoping."

Citing the president's constant clashes with Congress and the controversy he regularly stirs up, Aho, who helps run her brother's motel and bait shop in the North Shore town of Finland, Minn., said she wishes Trump would cut back on the heated rhetoric and "be a little more diplomatic about it."

The bait shop was the first stop on a 330-mile road trip along Highway 1 in early August to gauge how Trump is faring midway through his first year. The road rolls across territory where Trump outperformed prior Republican hopefuls in a state Democrats have won in every presidential election since 1976.

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MPR News spoke with dozens of voters, from Finland, a five-mile drive from Lake Superior in the east, to Oslo, Minn., a stone's throw from the North Dakota border in the west.

Trump's standing in these areas is important headed into a 2018 midterm election where Minnesota will see competitive races for Congress and a wide-open governor's contest. Trump may also loom large in some state House races. Minnesota Republicans rode his coattails last year to pick up a handful of legislative seats that had been in DFL control.

Some Republicans gearing up for 2018 are trying to tap into the Trump message and attract his voters, particularly in greater Minnesota. However, if Trump's strength erodes it could spell trouble for his party.

'The straight-in-your-face, I like'

Support from those who voted for Trump appeared sturdy, which tracks with national polling showing the president's base is hanging with him despite dismal ratings overall.

Kathy Brennan.
Kathy Brennan, an artist, stands near her pieces for sale in an Ely, Minn., gallery. She didn't vote for President Trump and hasn't warmed to him either.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Still, some backers find themselves cringing at the president's unconventional style. People who said they didn't vote for him say he's done little to gain their confidence, evidence that wounds from a divisive election are far from healed.

"He's arrogant. He doesn't listen to people. He hears what he wants to hear. And I just don't care for him," said Kathy Brennan, who lives in neighboring Isabella, Minn., and produces wood-and-stone art pieces sold in a gallery about 30 minutes away in Ely, Minn.

For every Brennan, there were voters like Brent Mitchell, a fiber optics utility worker who sported a blue "We Support Mining" T-shirt, matching the pro-mining signs in his Ely yard.

"I love Trump," he said. "He's just a president that will actually do things. Controversial — I don't like the tweeting — but I like 'get it done.'"

He's rooting for Trump to make it good to boost American steel, mining and pipeline projects.

Brent Mitchell and Jackie Koschak.
Brent Mitchell and Jackie Koschak don't see eye-to-eye on Donald Trump's style but they both support things he's tried to do so far as president.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

His wife, Jackie Koschak, is also a Trump fan. She's on board with Trump's push for immigration restrictions, but isn't convinced he's on the right path on health care or climate policy.

"There's a time and a place and a way to rattle things up. I think it's going a little fast for my liking," Koschak said. "But, you know, if he makes some changes, call 'er good."

The couple doesn't exactly see eye to eye on Trump's approach.

"I do like his no-b.s., but he could tone 'er back a little," Koschak said.

Said Mitchell: "The straight-in-your-face, I like. I'm not politically correct. I don't think the president of the United States has to be."

Koschak and Mitchell live in Minnesota's 8th Congressional District, which backed Trump by a 54 percent to 38 percent margin over Clinton. At the same time, those voters sent Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan back to Congress in an expensive, squeaker of a race.

The district has long been dominated by Democrats. But Trump's message about reviving rural America and lifting up towns built on heavy industry resonated here.

Bumper stickers on passing pickup trucks bear Trump's name. But there's still a lingering tension even nine months out from the election.

Many people consented to recorded interviews along the way, but others would offer their thoughts only privately or politely declined to speak about Trump altogether.

'Taking a long time to learn'

At several businesses, the owners were clearly sensitive about the topic. They said going public with their views either way could offend some patrons.

That's the case with Vicky Meloche, whose family owns a trio of shops in Tower, Minn., with quintessential Minnesota names: Ubetcha Antiques and Uniques, Uffda Thrifts and Gifts and the Tourist Trap Flea Market.

Antiques store owner Vicky Meloche.
Antiques store owner Vicky Meloche politely declined to discuss President Trump, saying "you never know who your friends are anymore."
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Meloche said clerks at the shops are instructed to stay away from political talk, especially these days.

"It's such a controversial subject," Meloche said. "So it's something I would prefer not to talk about because everybody is so divided. You never know who your friends are anymore."

The two-lane Highway 1 slices through seven counties, including Itasca County where last year, a majority of voters there went for a Republican presidential candidate for the first time since 1928.

An oversized Trump campaign sign still hangs from the trees a few miles outside Effie, Minn., where the main drag is pretty quiet in the late afternoon.

At the Effie Cafe, Gayle Heggem agreed to briefly talk Trump after ordering some takeout food.

The retired nurse lives a few miles outside of town and didn't vote for Trump. She sees the president as impulsive and too eager to pick fights and says he would be wise to heed expert advice more readily.

Retired nurse Gayle Heggem.
Retired nurse Gayle Heggem was waiting for a takeout order to be filled at the Effie Cafe. She didn't vote for President Trump and is turned off by his impulsive style.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

"I hope he's learning but he's taking a long time to learn," Heggem said.

A half-hour away, in Northome, Minn., "Gilligan's Island" plays on the TV in the Shining Light Cafe. An invitation to discuss Trump finds no takers until a waitress offers to have her husband, a political junkie, come by.

That man is Gregory Davison. He was on top of the day's big White House staff departure and a news alert about the latest turn in the Russian election interference probe popped up on the smartphone he had at the table.

Davison wouldn't reveal who he voted for, but said Trump deserved a shot once he got there. Still, he worries about how Trump's bravado is going over with foreign leaders as tensions escalate with Russia and North Korea.

"It's like the Cold War is trying revive itself," Davison said.

While not in line with parts of Trump's domestic agenda, Davison is behind the push to rewrite the federal tax code.

"The current income tax system is so complex," he said. "If he could simplify it, he'd have my support 100 percent."

'A shakeup that the country needed'

Ten miles outside Northome is where Minnesota's 7th Congressional District picks up. Instead of the dense forest that has lined the roadway so far, it's mostly farm country from here out — eye-high corn stalks, rolling wheat fields and lush soybean plots.

Trump ran up the vote score in this part of the state, topping 60 percent in the district. At the same time, long-serving Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson earned a new term, though by a closer margin than usual.

As storm clouds moved in over Thief River Falls, Minn., Evan Mapes was folding up a lawn chair after watching his grandson's baseball team win its game.

He works in education, and voted for Trump. He described it as a default choice given his distaste for Clinton.

Evan Mapes
Evan Mapes, who was at his grandson's baseball game in Thief River Falls, Minn., said President Trump was the best of the options on his ballot.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

He blamed an entrenched Washington for making Trump's first months so rocky.

"The problem is no one wants to work together to fix the problems," Mapes said. "That's why I say Washington is just dysfunctional."

Mapes expressed hope Trump can follow through on a promised wall along the Mexican border, deliver on a tax overhaul and find a way to salvage a health care fix.

"You know, he was elected by us and he needs a chance to see if he can change things and be successful," Mapes said. "You don't hire somebody and not give them the tools to be successful and that's what's going on right now."

It's a sentiment shared by Randy Olson.

He was sitting in the bed of a pickup truck next to piles of freshly picked sweet corn that he grew on his hobby farm near Warren, Minn., about 30 miles from Thief River Falls.

At the main intersection in Warren, Olson found a steady flow of customers at $4 for a dozen cobs. He's a Trump supporter and has no complaints so far.

"I think he's doing just fine," Olson said, noting that the economy is humming along and other countries have been put on notice about remaking trade deals.

Olson said he figured from the outset that the president would have his work cut out for him.

"That's part of being the outsider," he said. "I mean, you're not part of the gang, so obviously they're going to try to tear him down."

Scott Kosmatka
Scott Kosmatka, owner of the local food market in Oslo, Minn., voted for President Trump last November because he saw it as a chance for a shakeup in Washington.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

At the last stop in Olso, a town of 300 people by the Red River, Scott Kosmatka owns the local food market. He cast his ballot for Trump, as did 70 percent of the voters there.

"It's a shakeup that the country needed," Kosmatka said.

Now, he wishes the Republicans who control Congress would lend Trump a hand.

"There's a lot of people that just are pushing against him," he said, "and I'm not exactly sure why."