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‘Never Trump’ is toast in the Minnesota GOP. Can the party move on in one piece?

At at the party’s convention in Duluth, anti-Trump forces attempted a last-ditch effort to derail the candidate — at least in Minnesota. It didn’t work out so well.

While the convention’s central focus ultimately became the importance of stopping the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, serious divisions over Donald Trump remain.
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday

The effort to resist Donald Trump in Minnesota fell in a hail of nays on the floor of the state Republican convention in Duluth this past weekend — and it’s now probably done for good.

On Friday afternoon, a delegate at the state central committee meeting — where the truest of the party’s true believers convene — introduced a resolution, styled as a “party unity” measure.

It said the Minnesota GOP would “continue to welcome all volunteers… Regardless of their level of support for any particular candidate.”

“We therefore,” the resolution read, “in the interest of promoting unity to the highest degree possible, affirm the right of individuals, campaigns, and party units to focus on races of their choosing.”

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The idea: if you have serious reservations about the presidential candidacy of Trump — which many Republican activists in Minnesota do — you should be able to remain in an official position in the party without running afoul of the rule to do no harm to any GOP endorsed candidate.

The North Star State was ripe for this kind of effort. It was the only state where a plurality of Republicans voted for Sen. Marco Rubio; it was the only state where Trump placed third.

As the national party, and parties in other states, coalesced around Trump while Rubio, then Sen. Ted Cruz, and then Gov. John Kasich, dropped out, talk picked up steam in Minnesota GOP circles of some type of effort — if only symbolic — to communicate that they would not roll over to the march of Donald Trump.

This weekend, the majority of the party resoundingly rejected that idea — to the surprise and disappointment of those who’ve declared they will #NeverTrump. While the convention’s central focus ultimately became the importance of stopping the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, serious divisions over Trump remain.

For a state party with some well-publicized problems, the question now is, how much damage will those divisions do heading toward November, or beyond?

Minnesotans unimpressed by Trump

While Trump packed airport hangars and arenas across the country, Minnesotans were broadly turned off by Trump’s controversial tactics and rhetoric.

Heading into the March 1 Super Tuesday contests, national prognosticators identified Minnesota as a bulwark of Trump resistance, pointing to the moderate suburbs of the Twin Cities as the most fertile ground for Trump alternatives like Rubio.

That prediction was proven correct: voters in the 3rd Congressional District picked Rubio over Trump, 44 to 19 percent, and voters in the 4th District did so by a margin of 45 to 17 percent. But those results marked the high point of Rubio’s campaign.

Ken Cobb, co-chair of the Beltrami County GOP and a leading anti-Trump voice, says that after Cruz dropped out, a few Minnesotans began huddling about planning something for the floor of the state convention in Duluth — to deny Trump, in a meaningful way, any backing from the Republican Party of Minnesota.

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According to Cobb, about 60 people discussed tactics in a private Facebook group. Leading up to the convention, they weighed three options for resolutions to advance on the convention floor. MinnPost reviewed a post from the group’s page outlining the potential scenarios.

The first proposal was “a formal rebuke of Trump, either in the form of a resolution opposing his comments/actions or an actual censure. This would be a symbolic action only.”

The second was “changing the name of the party to Independent Republicans, or something similar, as was done in the post Watergate era. Mostly symbolic, but a very loud message to voters about down ballot Republicans.”

The third — and most ambitious option, was this: “Removing Trump from the ballot in Minnesota… This would be a very impactful action, possibly the shot heard round the country in terms of defending conservatism.”

One or more of these measures was intended to be advanced at the wider state convention. Plans for the smaller state central committee meeting, the memo read, “have been centered on a motion to deny state party funding of any Trump campaign expenditures.”

Those involved told MinnPost that final item was considered the strongest possibility heading into the convention. To them, the ability to say the Minnesota GOP was not officially providing support to the Trump campaign could have given down-ballot candidates the distance from the candidate they needed to survive in November.

The stakes, too, they argued, weren’t that high — the cash-strapped state party has little money to give even to in-state candidates, much less the presidential nominee.

‘Trump is not a conservative’

When convention weekend finally arrived, the anti-Trump sentiment was palpable in the halls of the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.

Key anti-Trump leaders struggled to get an accurate read on the size of the anti-Trump contingent at the convention — estimates ranged from 20 to 40 percent — but they were visible: some attendees wore Rubio sweatshirts; others wore Cruz hats and buttons.

In the convention hall, alongside booths for Trump, the endorsed congressional candidates and an often-unmanned Hispanic Republican Assembly of Minnesota booth was a Cruz for President booth.

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Wayne Buchholz, a convention attendee representing the 35th Senate District in Anoka County, was wearing a Cruz hat and sticker as he spoke with other Cruz supporters in the registration hall Friday morning. “Trump is not a conservative,” he said. “I’m hoping we can get enough delegates at the nationals that are supporting Cruz that will overturn Trump if he doesn’t get it on the first ballot.”

His wife Maria, wearing a Cruz sticker and a button proclaiming “Socialism Sucks,” added that she could not “in good conscience” vote for Trump. What was the best course of action at the convention now, though? “As far as what I’m gonna do, I don’t have an answer for you,” Wayne said. “No matter which way we go, this party is just being ripped in two.”

On the floor: resolution is ‘subterfuge’

As delegates to the state central committee gathered early Friday afternoon, it became clear which way the anti-Trump faction had decided to go: instead of an ambitious play to cut off party funding to Trump, they went with a statement resolution affirming Republicans’ right to focus on “races of their choosing,” that seemed weak in comparison.

Walter Hudson, a city council member from Albertville who introduced the motion, acknowledged that the decidedly not-ambitious resolution wasn’t what many had expected to see.

But on the floor, he launched into an articulate case for passing the language as a way to keep party officials who oppose Trump within the party fold. “At this point in the process, our party needs to find a path forward that allows people with sincere disagreements regarding particular candidates to nonetheless work together on behalf of candidates down-ballot or elsewhere,” he said.

“We have to acknowledge that the candidacy of Donald Trump has exposed a fault line in our party. There’s a danger we split as a result of that fault line.”

All the anti-Trump faction was asking, Hudson said, is for the Minnesota GOP “to affirm that one can be a good Republican in spite of reservations about the nominee.”

State GOP Chair Keith Downey then opened up the floor for speeches, and first to speak in favor was Dave Thul, who chaired the Steele County GOP for eight years before stepping down due to his opposition to Trump. (There is no formal rule saying that a party official must resign if they don’t support a presidential nominee, but some believe that action to reflect the spirit of the rules.)

“I can’t support him and I can’t ask others to support him,” Thul said to the crowd on the floor of the DECC Arena, adding that the resolution, if it passed, would mean others wouldn’t feel compelled to do what he did, and step down from their posts.

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The speeches that followed Thul’s amounted less to a resounding show of support for Trump and more a expression of skepticism and frustration about what the anti-Trumpers were up to.

Don Huizenga from the 6th Congressional District said, “I’m really surprised Walter said this motion was made to present unity when actually he even just admitted it’s made to make us divisive… It separates us within different factions.

“We’ve all gone through the process of not liking our presidential nominee… There’s something bigger to consider here. It’s not about Minnesota, it’s not about Minnesota politics.”

Jim Foley of Waseca County took the mic and called the resolution divisive. “I’m tired of hearing about Dave Thul in the newspaper,” he said. “He claims he had to resign because of his objections, fine. I don’t know if he mentioned to tell, but the committee voted him out unanimously,” he said, to applause.

Bob Tatreau from Senate District 53 in the southeast metro said to the attendees, “If you’ll pardon my pejorative, this is a phoney baloney resolution… [Trump] is a solid conservative candidate.” That comment drew laughter from the audience. “OK, he’s a populist,” he added, “but you know, what we need is a populist!”

Huizenga denounced the resolution as “subterfuge” — raising the suspicion that it was designed to give Republicans leeway to not only not oppose Trump, but support another candidate. Maybe Hillary Clinton.

That sentiment prompted Hudson to take the mic one last time to clarify: “The characterization of this resolution as enabling people to support candidates other than Republicans is completely false.”

“Yes it does!” someone shouted.

“No, it does not,” Hudson responded coolly. He concluded with a plea to attendees to send a message that those who oppose Trump are still welcome in the party.

After some procedural wrangling, Downey put it to a vote. The yeas were accounted for, passionate, but the contingent just sounded small. Moments later, the collective nay resounded loud and clear through the arena.

NeverTrumpers surprised at defeat

Shortly after the resolution was defeated, Thul entertained a trickle of delegates who came to thank him. “I am surprised it failed,” he told MinnPost. “I think people read more into the resolution than we intended.”

Thul said he wasn’t bitter. “We had a democratic process. We got to have a debate on it,” he said. But in the minutes after the vote, he said, two party county chairs already told him they would be resigning, too. “We talk about politicians — you can’t trust them, they’re in it for themselves, they never hold to their principles,” Thul said. “If we, as activists, don’t hold to our principles, how do we expect our elected politicians to do the same?”

Hudson said that the whole episode was demoralizing. That the response was “so swift and so uniformly critical… It did take me off guard, because a lot of the people who were offering the critique like, a week prior, had been fervently anti-Trump,” he said.

“To me,” he said, “it’s a credibility factor. How do we go forward saying we stand for these principles that our nominee blatantly, flagrantly violates and campaigns against, and pretend we’re going to credibly advance them moving forward?”

“I thought it was important, and so did the rest of my group, to acknowledge that with this particular candidate, there’s a lot of divisive factors, and if you talk to people individually they acknowledge it, but if you ignore it collectively, you’re going to encourage more people to passively fade away,” he said, before being interrupted by a delegate who stopped by to say, “I’m with you.”

Delegates try to move on

As the convention moved on to other business — in a year without a statewide race, a debate over judicial nominations was the top-line item — it became clear that additional anti-Trump resistance would not materialize. There would be no move to rename the party, no play to take Trump off the ballot in November.

Instead, speakers and party officials urged delegates to focus on the big picture: defeating Clinton. Rallying around the GOP nominee, they maintained, was the only way remaining to stop Clinton — even if most speakers on stage wouldn’t so much as utter the nominee’s name.

Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer, the only member of the Minnesota congressional delegation to attend the convention, delivered a speech critical of Clinton and Democrats’ “socialist” agenda that was reminiscent of the Emmer of talk radio. But he didn’t mention Trump’s name once.

Rep. Tom Emmer delivered a speech critical of Hillary Clinton
MinnPost photo by Sam Brodey
Rep. Tom Emmer delivered a speech critical of Hillary Clinton and Democrats’ “socialist” agenda that was reminiscent of the Emmer of talk radio.

The most direct case for Trump came from Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, North Dakota’s lone U.S. House member, who served as chief surrogate for the candidate. “We’re not enemies,” he told the audience on Saturday. “We’re just a really big tent. We need to put on a united face, a united language… We need to walk out this door doing everything we can for Donald Trump.”

Chris Fields, deputy chair of the party, was more blunt: “We may hate each other,” he said in his address, “but let’s hate them more.”

Still, there was pining for what might have been. On Saturday afternoon, delegates were shown a slickly-made video tribute to Cruz’s failed presidential campaign — earning their warm, sustained applause.

Among the rank-and-file — Trump supporters and opponents alike — acrimony persisted after the floor vote was over. Jake Geasy, a delegate from St. Louis County and a Cruz supporter, said what transpired on Friday “just shows intolerance, in a word.”

The worst of it, he says, came not from Trump supporters but party officials — “people who used to support other candidates now saying, well, we’ve gotta unify, it’s Trump’s way or the highway… And you’re trying to say I don’t belong, the people who voted against the measure don’t belong, or they should just submit — I thought we were the freedom party, guys?”

“It kinda hurts knowing that the state party is like, ‘Up yours,’” he said.

John Kunitz from Chanhassen, wearing a red “Make America Great Again” cap, said it’s long past time to move on. “Minnesota doesn’t have the right to go in its own direction.”

Now what?

Tough questions remain for those NeverTrump Republicans who hold positions within the party — whether to resign in protest or stay on for the sake of unity.

Cobb said he plans to put the question of his resignation to members of the Beltrami County GOP. He admitted that if he leaves, he’s “not sure” who will step up to fill the void. “Every NeverTrump party official is going to have to make a decision on what they can do.”

Some worry that the predicaments of activists like Cobb and Thul will harm the party’s ability to compete down-ballot, from congressional races to state legislature races. NeverTrumpers want to stick around to help down-ballot candidates for Congress and the state legislature, but already, several have left positions of power within the party.

Addressing the floor on Saturday, Cobb told attendees to let NeverTrumpers work for down-ballot candidates. “Next to you, there is someone who can’t support the nominee,” he said. “Are we still welcome in our own party? You need our help. We’re the ones who do most of the work.”

Despite the harsh words, the alleged mischaracterization of the anti-Trump resolution, Cobb says he harbors no grudges. “I’m not angry at the party leadership… They’ve got to basically perform their role. That’s what they’re doing at this point.”

Regardless of whether or not a significant amount of volunteers and activists stay involved, some worry that it’s already too late for Republicans’ chances in Minnesota.

“Every candidate with an R by their name, and congressional candidates, are going to get tagged,” Thul said. He worried about candidates at all levels wasting valuable time talking about “do they or don’t believe what Donald Trump said.”

Party officials deflect criticisms of Trump and his rhetoric by bringing up Clinton’s own unfavorability ratings, which are also high. Publicly, they’re projecting confidence, and this weekend rolled out familiar talking points about how the primary process in 2016 has re-invigorated the party and prompted record-high turnout.

For some, that process still isn’t over: more than one attendee spoke with a straight face about the possibility of stopping Trump at a contested national convention in Cleveland.

In a hallway off the convention floor, Hudson, an African-American, reflected on the big picture, and a years-long effort from him and others to expand the Minnesota GOP to include minorities and young people — the constituencies widely seen as necessary to the national party’s survival.

“We’re losing them in spades because of Donald Trump,” he said. “That’s going to have a detrimental impact on the Republican Party of Minnesota for cycles to come.”

“What we tried to do here today was in large part an effort to plant the seeds so that after this winter is over, and the spring comes, we have something we can point to and say, there were those of us who believed like you, who thought like you, who share your values. Come start something fresh with us,” he said.

But will what NeverTrumpers tried to do in Duluth be remembered as a desperate, diminished, ploy — too little, too late? Will it be remembered at all?

“Hopefully,” Hudson said, “I will be there to remind them.”