Days after President Donald Trump officially announced his 2020 re-election bid, Minnesota Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan attended a picnic on the White House lawn. As they posed for a selfie, the state GOP leader thanked the president for making three visits to the state since taking office.
"I told him, 'We appreciate you coming and we hope to see you here at least as many times before the election next year,' " Carnahan said.
The president's response: "I will be there."
Minnesotans have picked the Democratic nominee for the White House in every election since 1972. Trump, who lost the state by just 1.5 percentage points in 2016, believes he can end that streak. With 15 months to go until the general election, the GOP is doubling down on efforts to turn Minnesota red, putting national campaign staff on the ground and hosting a series of training sessions to mobilize Republican voters.
"We're really excited to be very, very ahead of the curve as far as historically staffing up, especially in a state that the president came within 44,000 votes of flipping last time," said Stephanie Alexander, the Midwest regional field director for Trump Victory, a joint effort by the Republican National Committee and the president's re-election campaign. "This is the first time this has ever been done," she added.
The early infusion of GOP resources reflects a growing perception that Minnesota could be a battleground state — a status it has rarely been accorded in modern presidential politics. Nominees from both parties are expected to aggressively court voters across the Upper Midwest after narrow wins in states like Michigan and Wisconsin sealed Trump's path to victory in 2016. Campaign manager Brad Parscale told the political news site Axios that Minnesota is one of the campaign's top pickup targets for next year's election.
Targeted states typically see a significant boost in advertising spending by the candidates, their parties, and an array of outside groups that have become significant players in national politics.
For Trump, winning the state appears to be a personal priority. The president has said publicly that he thinks "one more speech" here would have tipped the scales in 2016. He renewed his pledge to flip Minnesota last week, blasting his 61.9 million followers with his second tweet in a matter of days on the debate over whether the Pledge of Allegiance should be recited before St. Louis Park City Council meetings.
"The Pledge of Allegiance to our great Country, in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, is under siege," Trump tweeted. "That is why I am going to win the Great State of Minnesota in the 2020 Election."
Top officials from both parties say the RNC hires mark the earliest a Republican presidential campaign has put staff on the ground in recent Minnesota memory. DFL Chairman Ken Martin said the GOP appears stronger and more organized than he's seen in years past.
"There's no doubt that the Republicans here are making a huge play to flip Minnesota," Martin said "We're not taking anything for granted."
Republicans' hopes are pinned on the idea that they can replicate Trump's strong 2016 performance, which helped the GOP seize majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.
Democrats bounced back big in the 2018 midterms, however, sweeping all six statewide races by healthy margins and reclaiming a 16-seat majority in the state House. The election, which saw record turnout and Democratic gains across the country, was seen by many as a referendum on the president.
Those midterm results, as well as Hillary Clinton's failure to campaign in the state in person in 2016, could suggest that Trump's near-win was a "fluke," said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University. Despite the close margin, the raw number of Minnesotans casting a ballot for the Republican nominee in 2016 was up just 3,000 votes over 2012, when Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by 7 percentage points.
But Schultz, who wrote a book on presidential swing states, also has seen evidence that Minnesota is becoming more competitive.
"The state has been tightening for years and I think at the end of the day, you can perhaps make an argument that if Trump really targets the state, there's a possibility he could flip it much in the way he flipped the rest of the Midwest in 2016," Schultz said.
The key question, Schultz continued, is whether Democrats can retain the energy that drove record-high turnout in 2018, especially among suburban women seen as crucial to DFL victories.
"If those suburban women come out in the numbers they came out in last year, that probably still is enough to counteract any Trump surge," he said.
Democrats say they're not taking any chances when it comes to making sure those voters stay energized and head to the polls in 2020. A number of groups seen as key to driving the high turnout that delivered Democrats their midterm wins, including the PAC EMILY's List, which supports abortion rights, and coalitions backing stricter gun laws, say they plan to be active here in the upcoming election.
"We're going to fight like mad to keep Minnesota in the blue column," Martin said.
But Republicans say they're already seeing a bump in enthusiasm of their own. More than 600 volunteers turned out for 26 training events that Trump Victory held across the state last month, with 250 attending one session in Bloomington. Carnahan said the energy in the room was "contagious."
"It wasn't just our core activists that showed up," she said. "There were people that had showed up I have never seen before."
Carnahan acknowledges that Minnesota voters "punished the Republicans" up and down the ticket in the midterms, a trend she saw as an attempt to "relitigate the 2016 election." But she thinks having Trump on the ballot will change the dynamic in 2020, especially if Democrats nominate a candidate who veers too far to the left on divisive policy issues.
"What we're seeing is, who is going to be the farthest left, most extreme candidate," Carnahan said. "That's not going to do [Democrats] any favors."
The RNC hopes to gain an extra edge in turning out voters who support the president but stayed home in the midterms, an aim that will take both money and boots on the ground.
The hiring spree started with RNC state director Tim Lagerman, a former Pennsylvania Republican Party political director and NRA field representative who moved to Minnesota in June. A new data director, also paid for by the RNC, is set to start soon. The state party is staffing up, too, with at least five new regional field directors. Officials with both arms say they will continue to ramp up that presence, bringing on more staff and holding another round of volunteer trainings in the weeks and months ahead.
But political parties and campaigns will only be one piece of the puzzle in 2020. Super PACs and other outside political advocacy groups are expected to pour tens of millions of dollars into the state, especially if polling shows a tight race between Trump and the eventual Democratic nominee. Independent groups spent $43 million on federal races in Minnesota in 2018.
A recent report from a political ad-tracking firm named Minnesota one of "two dark-horse states that could see much higher spending than projected" under Trump's re-election strategy. Competitive races for the U.S. Senate and a number of U.S. House seats could boost overall activity and spending even more.
Alexander, the Trump Victory official, said it's too soon to say how much the RNC and other groups will commit to Minnesota. But flipping the state, she said, will be "a priority for all the Republicans."
"We will absolutely spend one more dollar than is necessary to win," she said.
Torey Van Oot • 651-925-5049