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A very early look at how the Trump phenomenon could affect the Minnesota governor’s race

Could the one-time fringe candidacy of Donald Trump become the campaign template for Minnesota’s next governor? 

President-elect Donald Trump gestures from the front door at the main clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, on Sunday.
REUTERS/Mike Segar

For a political candidate, name recognition is usually an asset. And most of the names of the politicians considering a run for Minnesota governor in 2018 have at least some voter recognition stemming from their years of public service.  

But in in the era of Trump, that familiarity may breed contempt. 

Trump lost Minnesota to Hillary by less than 45,000 votes. A considerable amount of his appeal was not only his stands on trade, immigration, and national security, but his promise to attack those problems with reforms that owed no allegiance to either major political party. 

Yet consider the current names that could top the ticket in 2018: On the DFL side, there’s state Rep. Erin Murphy, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, Attorney General Lori Swanson, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, among others. For Republicans, there’s Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt and GOP party chair Keith Downey.

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All of them have something in common: all are party insiders whose accomplishments may not turn out to be great assets to a campaign. “If you really want reform,” said political consultant Lonny Leitner, who helped organize the Trump efforts in Minnesota and Iowa, “You don’t give one of these guys a promotion. Voters are still looking for an outsider with different types of experiences.” 

Leitner, a St. Paul native who was initially a Jeb Bush and Scott Walker supporter in the GOP nomination race, said that neither party appears to have yet grasped the significance of the Trump vote. “Minnesota is a diverse state with 87 counties,” he said. “Who are those Trump voters, who is that coalition? People get so trapped in the bubble in St. Paul, they forget the real needs, real concerns and fears, if you will, of the average Minnesotan.”

Republicans, who picked up legislative seats in greater Minnesota, may be in even worse shape that the metro-centric DFL, he suggested. “I worry looking at the Republican party, or lack thereof,” he said. “Until we can win metro seats, we are dying party.”

Former Senate majority leader Amy Koch has also been talking to other Republicans about where the party should be heading. “In 2010, we had a historic majority with no road map,” she said, a situation she believes needs to change for the next election cycle.

“We don’t even have conversations about a governor nominee,” she said. “It’s about the party. Some of it is about party structure. Some of it is about policy… like transportation, higher ed, and health care.”

And the groups, mainly organized at the local senate district level “very much get it,” she said. “I think the Republicans really need to understand what Minnesotans are concerned about and everything else will follow.”

Multiple factors will play into each party’s selection of a gubernatorial candidate, of course, including the actions of the legislature and the first two years of the Trump administration. But for the moment, the one-time fringe candidacy of Donald Trump could become the campaign template for Minnesota’s next governor.