President Donald Trump arrives in Minnesota Wednesday as the unquestioned leader of the state Republican Party's officeholders, activists and rank-and-file — a marked change from his distant third-place finish in the 2016 presidential caucus.
"Now that President Donald Trump has been in office, even people who weren't for him say they're impressed," said Jennifer Carnahan, chairwoman of the Minnesota Republican Party. "He's been principled and is doing things to move our country forward."
Trump is scheduled to attend a roundtable discussion on Wednesday with steel and mine workers, followed by an evening rally in Duluth. Minnesota Republicans are banking on the president's standing to boost their prospects in the November election while looking ahead to 2020, when they hope to make Trump the first Republican to win Minnesota since Richard Nixon carried the state in 1972. Trump's narrow Minnesota loss to Hillary Clinton in 2016 was one of the best showings for a Republican presidential candidate here since Nixon's win.
But the strategy carries risks given Trump's political volatility, underscored this week by harrowing images of an administration policy that separates children from their parents after their apprehension at the border.
Even as a bevy of Republican elected officials and candidates prepare to travel to Duluth to grab Trump's coattails, Minnesota Democrats are trying to use Trump against the GOP.
State Rep. Peggy Flanagan, DFL-Golden Valley, implored GOP Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach, who is Tim Pawlenty's running mate, to scold Trump for the family separation policy when she greets the president on the tarmac.
"I know she is a mother and a grandmother and my hope is that in that moment of greeting President Donald Trump, she speaks from that place and calls out for justice for these young children," said Flanagan, who is U.S. Rep. Tim Walz's running mate in the governor's race.
The DFL is holding a "Blue Wave Rise and Resist Rally" in Duluth at the same time Trump will rouse his followers.
The DFL, its candidates and allied groups report a surge in fundraising and volunteering, as well as new legislative candidates, catalyzed by antipathy toward Trump and his policies. The past 18 months have mirrored the early days of the administration of President Barack Obama, when a wave of new Republican activists emerged.
Despite the DFL activism, Republicans, with a few exceptions, are all in with Trump. They believe Trump can be particularly pivotal in the historically DFL-dominated Eighth Congressional District, which includes Duluth and a wide swath of northeastern Minnesota. Just one Republican has represented the district since World War II, but Trump carried it by more than 15 percentage points.
Since taking office, Trump has delivered on campaign promises that resonate in that part of the state. He reversed an Obama administration decision to stop mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and slapped tariffs on imported steel — a major boost to the Iron Range's mining industry.
Trump's tariff policies are not without political repercussions in other parts of the state. Soybean farmers are concerned about retaliatory tariffs from China and other nations on their products, which DFLers hope will help them hold on to the ag-heavy First Congressional District, where there's an open race to replace Walz.
But the steel tariffs also have a major political beneficiary: Pete Stauber, the GOP candidate in the Eighth District, who will face the winner of a crowded DFL primary. Stauber, a retired police officer, will be featured at the Wednesday Trump events, and has been furiously fundraising off the presidential visit in recent days.
After finishing third with 21 percent of the Republican caucus vote in 2016, Trump seems to have won over Minnesota Republicans. A full 89 percent of self-identified Republicans approved of his job performance in a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll earlier this year.
Trump's shaky start here was a matter of style, said David FitzSimmons, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn.
"He's a big personality who operates with what I think a lot of Minnesotans view as an East Coast, New York style. There's a little bit of unfamiliarity with that," said FitzSimmons, who is on leave from Emmer's office to run the campaign of Republican Jim Hagedorn in the First Congressional District.
In the weeks before the last election, several high-profile Minnesota Republicans said they were withdrawing their support for Trump after the release of the "Access Hollywood" tape, in which he bragged about grabbing women's genitals.
Pawlenty, running for his old job this year, said at the time that Trump was "unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit to be president of the United States." Pawlenty later revealed he had voted for Trump by absentee ballot before the tape's public release.
Pawlenty did not respond to an interview request about Trump's appearance. He said in April that he agreed with Trump's policies, especially on issues like taxes and immigration.
Trump's hawkish immigration views fit with those of many Minnesota Republicans, who have increasingly echoed the president on both immigration and refugee resettlement. Both Pawlenty and his Republican primary opponent Jeff Johnson are calling for a "pause" in refugee resettlement to Minnesota.
In a TV interview in January, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Karin Housley gave Trump an "A" for his policies, though this week she said she does not support separating children from parents at the border.
One prominent Republican, U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, will not be in Duluth. Trump lost Paulsen's suburban Third Congressional District by more than 9 percentage points. Paulsen released a statement condemning the family separation policy: "The United States should not forcibly break up families. That is just not what America is about," he said.
It may not be the last time Paulsen has to decide whether to appear alongside the Republican president.
Carnahan, the GOP chairwoman, said Trump has his eye on Minnesota and a 2020 victory here that would upend the electoral map: "If we keep building on our successes, it wouldn't be unrealistic to see more visits from the president between now and November."
J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042