Minnesota was always in play for Donald Trump.
So says his state campaign director and other Trump activists, who maintain that Trump’s narrow loss to Hillary Clinton here is nothing short of a political realignment — and that the DFL and Republican Party of Minnesota had better pay attention.
Trump’s campaign director in Minnesota was Andy Post, a 28-year old from Lakeville who says the Trump campaign recognized the opportunity the state presented shortly after the candidate’s nomination in July. By then, the campaign had the polling to know that there were enough of the kind of voters here they needed put the state in play.
When the campaign asked Post for his advice, he pointed out what he thought was obvious. “I said, ‘What does DFL mean? The second part is farmers and the third part is labor,’ ” Post said. “Farmers don’t hate Trump, labor certainly doesn’t hate Trump.”
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton wasn’t paying much attention to Democrats outside of Hennepin and Ramsey counties, leaving Greater Minnesota fertile territory for Trump votes. “Sometimes states go off the grid so long they become sleepers,” Post said. “The other side thinks they’re safe.”
Post took on the Minnesota challenge. He had no paid operatives, but he appointed Trump chairs in each congressional district. Those people then identified volunteers who supported Trump with a fervor akin to what Barak Obama created in 2008.
“These people were energized. This was, ‘We know we can win and we gotta get out and work, work, work,’” Post said. “I would much rather have the volunteers that we had than the typical ones that show up for the last two weeks of the campaign.”
John Gilmore, a St. Paul author and self-described “conservative who votes Republican,” caught Trump fever even before the GOP primaries. He predicted a year ago that Trump would take it all.
“I saw his appeal to those non-Republican and nontraditional Republican voters, people who had fallen out of the system,” Gilmore said. “We were told as Trump supporters that we were throwing away a sure win because we were fielding the strongest team that was ever put out. But actually Trump was the only Republican that could have beat Hillary Clinton.”
Gilmore believes that Minnesota Republicans, whom he tweaks with regularity in his blog and on Twitter, “don’t understand that Donald Trump has transformed Minnesota politics.”
Certainly, Trump failed to enchant the state’s establishment Republicans. Some GOP sample ballots didn’t even list him as the presidential candidate. Rep. Erik Paulsen told voters in the moderate 3rd Congressional District that he would not vote for Trump. Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt called for Trump to be disqualified because of remarks Trump made about women.
But with Donald Trump, political leaders weren’t always in step with voters. “A ton of our volunteers came from CD 3,” Post said. “And I’ve never seen anyone work more closely with a national campaign” than in the 1st and 8th Congressional Districts.
The Republican Party of Minnesota “never iced us out,” Post added, and supplied the Trump campaign with important voter data. Particularly, Post said, he was looking for mail voters who had not voted early. When he found them, Trump volunteers peppered them with calls, materials, and voting instructions.
Post admires how well the Clinton team used the early voting option. “One of the reasons we lost in metro Minnesota was early voting,” he said. “It was smart of them [the Clinton campaign] to coordinate with Minneapolis to get people to the in-person voting sites.”
Without early voting and the DFL’s estimable get-out-the-vote efforts, it’s possible the Clinton margin of victory could have been tighter or even nonexistent in Minnesota, especially because the Trump operation had what Post called “every campaign director’s dream — to get the candidate the Sunday before the election.”
With little time to prepare and with nonexistent resources, Post harnessed his volunteers to publicize a rally at the Sun Country hangar at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport for Sunday, Nov. 6, two days before election day.
“That is kind of the miracle story,” he said. “We posted online to RSVP. That’s it. The media led with the story for two days. I knew we didn’t have to worry.”
That is an understatement. Twenty thousand people said they would attend; at least 15,000 showed up in Bloomington. Post terms the rallies “old school, but they are effective.”
Post, Gilmore and others question whether either Republicans or Democrats can replicate Trump’s appeal to Minnesota voters, though. “The operation can be replicated,” Post said. “The candidate cannot. Trump was his own turnout machine.”
Still, Trump’s state campaigns made the most of its skeletal operations, leaving Post to speculate about Minnesota. “I can only imagine,” he said, “if we had a little more time or a little more resources, we could have turned it red.”