In Trump Country, immigration takes back seat to abortion, taxes and spending in many voters’ minds

A campaign sign for President Donald Trump in the ground.
Campaign signs for Republican candidates are placed in a yard in Morrison County, Minn. Morrison County overwhelmingly voted for President Donald Trump in 2016.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Steve Wenzel hasn’t always been a strong and visible supporter of the Republican party. In fact, the former state representative from Morrison County served in the Legislature as a Democrat for 29 years. 

Now Wenzel takes credit for helping his rural Minnesota county back Donald Trump by the state’s highest margin four years ago. The 73-year-old went from being inspired by Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy to becoming a Republican delegate for President Trump the last two election cycles. He chaired the county’s Republican party and his name is well-known in a community influenced by his political activism in recent years. 

“I didn’t leave the Democratic party, the Democratic party left me,” said Wenzel, now a political science instructor at Central Lakes College in Brainerd. “The Democratic party became so far left that it became unrecognizable.”

As Trump returns to Minnesota on Friday for his fourth campaign rally since August, it remains to be seen if his historic 2016 performance in rural areas can be repeated. Four years ago, Trump outperformed every other top-of-the-ticket Republican candidate in greater Minnesota over the last century. 

Snow covers the ground in a field
An early season blanket of snow covers a field outside of Little Falls, Minn. in Morrison County.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Morrison County, 100 miles north of the Twin Cities, led the state in voter turnout for Trump, with 74 percent of voters backing him in 2016. This year, many supporters are sticking with him, despite his administration’s aggressive immigration policies that have rattled immigrant workers and their employers in this farming community.  

Some Biden supporters say they’re afraid to speak publicly, noting that political disagreements in recent months have garnered negative reactions and in some cases severed ties with friends and family.

One dairy farmer, who asked not to be identified for fear of backlash for speaking out, said immigration issues alone would steer him toward a vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Some of the farmer’s Hispanic employees were targeted by border patrol agents last year, and he lost two employees to those arrests. 

But in the end, he still cast his ballot for Trump this fall.

“The immigration thing, he’s not the right guy,” the farmer said. “But then we also have to look at killing babies and the economy.”

Shifting allegiances

Morrison County has been faithfully conservative for the last five presidential elections. Although it hasn’t always tilted Republican, some voters say DFLers have deviated too far from their views on spending, taxes, and abortion.

A man wearing a shirt and tie smiling at the camera
Steve Wenzel
Steve Kohls | Brainerd Dispatch

“The average person felt that we were losing it on the economy, that trade under Obama and Clinton had become a one-way pass for Mexico and for China,” said Wenzel, who in 2001 was appointed by President George W. Bush to a U.S. Department of Agriculture post in Minnesota. “And they were seeing jobs and industries leaving this country.”

Every morning the local AM radio station KLTF airs a program called “Up Front” in which guests and hosts discuss politics and take caller questions. The radio station serves as a primary source of news for many voters in Morrison County. 

On a recent show, residents called in to share their thoughts about various topics, from presidential debates to unions and vaccines. A question about the flu vaccine turned into a discussion about how they’re produced, and whether those taking the shot should ask their doctors if they include aborted fetal cells.

The use of fetal tissue from elective abortions is common in medical research. In 2018, the Trump Administration began to cut funding that supported the use of human fetal tissue in medical research. 

“Little Falls has always been very, strong pro-life. And also now it’s become a huge supporter of the Second Amendment,” said Mayor Greg Zylka, whose seat is nonpartisan. “The table was set already somewhat for the Republicans because we had that representation before President Trump was elected.”

Trump’s immigration policies

While many Morrison County voters believe strongly in the anti-abortion movement, others say that has to encompass more than just that, to include human life from birth to death.

Horses stand in a front of a red barn
Horses stand in front of a barn in the rural areas of Morrison County outside of Little falls, Minn.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

“I choose to have a bigger understanding of pro-life,” said Greg Spofford, an immigration advocate in Little Falls. “Womb to tomb in terms of more than adequate health care for everybody, also is a life issue to me … capital punishment, housing and all of those things can be considered a pro-life issue.”

Judy Jeub, who already voted for Biden, said many years ago she advocated against abortion — and championed policies that she believed would improve the health and well-being of everyone. She now believes the anti-abortion movement has become too polarized and tunnel-visioned. When she thinks of the term “pro-life,” she also thinks of the plight of families at the U.S. southern border, including the 545 children whose parents have not been located. 

“What he did to the children, taking them away from their parents,” the 76-year-old Royalton resident said in disbelief, referring to Trump. “We’re going to be taking care of them for years to come and they’re not going to be really healthy children. I can’t believe he went down that path.”

But Morrison County farmers say immigration is low on the list of priorities they consider during presidential elections. Some say President Barack Obama could not reform the system in his eight years in office anyway, and doubt Biden will change things for the better.

‘Take the money and don’t vote for him?’

This is not the only rural county in Minnesota that’s turned Republican in recent years. This summer, mayors from the Iron Range endorsed Trump for reelection noting that after decades of voting for the Democratic nominee, they were hurt by trade deals and tariffs and watched jobs leave their region.

Trump’s trade war hurt farmers as well when China retaliated against United States tariffs and exports to China dropped significantly. But farmers say the president has been generous to them in recent months during the COVID-19 crisis. Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced an additional $14 billion in assistance to farmers who’ve struggled due to the pandemic. 

“So it’s like, take the money and don’t vote for him?” said the farmer who already voted for Trump. “That don’t make sense, either.”

Statewide, polls show increasing support for Biden in Minnesota. An MPR News/Star Tribune/KARE-11 Minnesota poll of 800 voters last month showed Biden leading Trump by 48-42 percent

But the poll also highlighted strong support for Trump in greater Minnesota. The president’s campaign has been making last-ditch efforts for a larger presence here with visits, campaign ads and volunteers trying to convince still undecided voters. Vice President Mike Pence was in Hibbing on Monday, and Trump is set to hold a rally in southern Minnesota on Friday. Biden announced Thursday he will appear in St. Paul just before Trump’s event.

 ICE director makes a stop in Minnesota

Tony Pham, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was in the Twin Cities Wednesday to announce the arrests of 100 undocumented immigrants over five days in six states, including Minnesota.

Pham began his announcement at the St. Paul field office by emphasizing President Trump's commitment to enforce immigration laws. He said the recent sweeps focused on cities that have not been cooperating with federal immigration officers. 

“These sanctuary cities do a disservice to our nation and it’s time the American people know about it and hear about it,” he said. “When local officials refuse to cooperate by simply transferring over a criminal alien in the safe confines of a jail, ICE must go into a community and search of these individuals.”

Like other cities across the country, Minneapolis and St. Paul have separation ordinances, meaning local law enforcement duties and federal duties are conducted separately.

ICE officials say 70 percent of those arrested in last week’s operation had criminal convictions or pending charges. The rest were arrested based on civil immigration violations.

Maria Elena Gutierrez, an immigration advocate for an organization called Faith and Justice, has held several “know your rights” presentations at rural farms to teach undocumented immigrants how they can protect themselves from immediate deportation. Gutierrez was called during increased immigration enforcement in Morrison County last year targeting farm workers. 

This year, Gutierrez has been registering voters in the region, with many new American citizens excited to vote for the first time because of concerns about racism.

“Latinos are very hard workers and they can find jobs in other places,” she added. “The people [who] are going to lose is the county because they don’t have people that want to do that type of job.”

But for Wenzel and farmers who support President Trump, what’s top of mind is the conservative U.S. Supreme Court appointments, an improved economy and a commitment to the anti-abortion movement.

“The average person, the little guy didn’t have a chance,” Wenzel said. “That resonated with people, little people, including the good people of Morrison County who felt that this was the only one that was speaking of their concerns.”

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