A major investment by the Trump campaign that fueled unprecedented get-out-the-vote efforts in Minnesota was not enough to turn the state red, leaving conservative activists and GOP operatives wondering how to recapture political relevance at the statewide level.
While Republicans made gains in some suburban and rural legislative districts, they lost both of the election’s statewide races — for the White House and the U.S. Senate — by decisive margins.
“If you’re going to win at the top of the ticket, you’re never going to do it with the candidates we’ve been putting up,” said Amy Koch, a GOP strategist.
Even as Democratic challenger Joe Biden carried the state, President Donald Trump, who vowed to win it, is likely to remain a potent force in the state’s Republican Party. He has cultivated a deeply devoted fan base that, in Minnesota, could complicate GOP efforts to regain ground in suburban areas growing more friendly to Democrats.
A former state Senate leader, Koch helped run two state Senate campaigns where GOP incumbents held on in districts Biden won. Tuesday’s results were far from uniformly negative for Republicans: They toppled longtime DFL U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson in western Minnesota, held a state Senate majority and gained a few seats in the state House.
But on a statewide level, the Minnesota Republican Party’s losing streak is starting to look epic. Starting with the 2006 election, Democrats have won 26 statewide contests, to one for Republicans.
While Trump improved on his 2016 vote totals here by turning out more votes in strongly Republican areas, Biden squashed those gains by running up lopsided winning margins in the Twin Cities region, reclaiming a handful of greater Minnesota counties and chipping away at Trump’s margins in formerly deep red suburban counties.
“I saw that Carver County went only 51 to 47 for Trump. That’s astonishing to me,” state Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, said of the west metro county that’s long been a GOP stronghold. “We’re used to a much bigger spread. There’s a real message there.”
In 2012, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won Carver County by more than 18 percentage points.
Jensen, who did not run for re-election this year, urged Republicans to be more welcoming of dissenting viewpoints.
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” Jensen said. “We have the opportunity to learn, and I hope we do.”
Jensen said he voted for Trump and appreciated his willingness to take on tough issues like trade and immigration, but that he grew weary of Trump’s abrasive political style.
Kurt Zellers, the former Republican House Speaker from Maple Grove, said he was concerned by a near-total GOP collapse in Hennepin County. But he said the party’s economic message and pro-law enforcement message could still be a good sell in the suburbs with a more effective messenger.
Democrats “won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore, so to speak,” Zellers said. “Suburban women aren’t going to have Trump to hate, which is what Biden counted on.”
But Trump supporters will unquestionably remain a force in state party politics, and many could be looking to settle scores as Trump and his allies keep up their legal and rhetorical efforts to undermine the election results.
“I’ve been focused on seeing where this election takes us here,” said MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, the Trump campaign’s state chairman and potential 2022 gubernatorial candidate. “I think there’s going to be a lot of court battles.”
Multiple party insiders say Lindell, who is personally close with Trump, would have to be taken seriously if he decides to run against DFL Gov. Tim Walz. But he would likely face opposition from more traditional party figures: Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka is seen as a likely candidate, and Jensen, the retiring state senator and medical doctor, said he’s still considering it.
“I do maintain a willingness and a wonderment” about running for governor, Jensen said.
Some Republicans are buzzing about the future for U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, the first Republican to win re-election to northeastern Minnesota’s congressional district in more than 75 years. Stauber said he’s humbled by rumors that he would run for governor, but for now is concentrating on his work in Congress.
Jennifer Carnahan, chairwoman of the Minnesota Republican Party, said the excitement Trump generated for the state party will not simply dissipate.
“Our activists stepped up in a bigger way than past election cycles,” she said. “We just had more people reaching out. We were constantly hearing from people who wanted to help out who just didn’t engage in politics before.”
Carnahan said she will put together some task forces to look into what Minnesota Republicans can do to regain ground in the suburbs. Her DFL counterpart, Ken Martin, said that won’t matter “for any Republican who attaches themselves to Trump moving forward.”
“If they are dumb enough to double down on Donald Trump and continue to embrace his divisive politics and his underperformance in the fastest-growing parts of the state, they’ll have the same results in the 2022 election,” Martin said.
Last week, Biden carried six state Senate districts that also backed Republican candidates for Senate. One of those was Sen. Carla Nelson of Rochester, who won by just under 2% in a district where Biden beat Trump by more than 9%.
“My opponent would try to tie me to Trump, and of course there were Republicans who said I didn’t support Trump enough. I’m right where I need to be,” Nelson said. “I think you always look for the sweet spot. I always look for those issues I know are important to everyone no matter what their political persuasion is.”
As for any statewide political ambition, Nelson said, “I never closed any doors.” She shared a photo of a pair of yard signs in Rochester for both her and Biden. But she would not say if she voted for Trump.
“I never tell people how I vote,” Nelson said. “I never will.”
Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413