On the floor of the Republican National Convention Tuesday night, Rep. Tom Emmer took the mic as the designated person to introduce the Minnesota delegation during the traditional “roll call” of the states.
He introduced Minnesota as “the home of 10,000 lakes, the home of Spam, the home of the late, great Prince, and the state that has had the longest drought of casting our electoral votes for a Republican president — which will change this year!” Emmer shouted.
Emmer then read the breakdown of Minnesota’s delegates: 17 votes for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, 13 for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, “and eight for the next president of the United States of America, Donald Trump!”
The convention spotlight has been on the freshman representative of the 6th Congressional District among Minnesota politics-watchers: Emmer is the only Republican from the state’s congressional delegation to attend this year’s convention.
After his appearance on the floor, it’s safe to say he’s one of the most prominent backers of Trump in a state that has so far been inhospitable territory for the movement to Make America Great Again.
The one-time talk radio jock’s embrace of Trump may seem unsurprising to people who remember the Tom Emmer who served in the legislature and once took unorthodox stances like instituting lower wages for tipped workers and introduced a bill that would have mandated the castration of some sex offenders.
But rather than signaling a reversion to his old, firebrand ways, the embrace of Trump may be a sign of something else: a disciplined, politically calculating Tom Emmer.
Emmer stays mum during primary
As the GOP’s year-long primary process played out, many members of Congress got on board with various presidential candidates, including Reps. Erik Paulsen and John Kline, who were enthusiastic backers of the campaign of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
As Kline and Paulsen plugged Rubio — even while the freshman senator sustained numerous primary defeats — Emmer stayed quiet. When approached to talk presidential politics in the halls of Congress, Emmer unfailingly played it safe, not even hinting at which candidate, out of an initial field of 17, he preferred.
“I’ll support the Republican candidate, but let’s wait and see what happens with the process,” Emmer told MinnPost in March, days after Trump placed third in Minnesota but cleaned up elsewhere. “We’ve got a little while to go yet.”
Kline and Paulsen, at the time, doubled down on Rubio, saying they still expected him to win.
But as it became clearer that would not happen, and that Trump was cruising toward the GOP nomination, Emmer started to become more vocal for Trump in Minnesota while his colleagues did not.
In May, at the state GOP convention in Duluth, Emmer — the only member of the congressional delegation to attend — delivered a fiery, red-meat speech in which he proclaimed America was “under attack” from within, criticized “socialist professors,” and said President Obama governed like a king.
But as he implored the party faithful to turn out in November to defeat Hillary Clinton, he was measured on the implication of that — voting for Trump. He didn’t use his name, instead referring to him once as the “inevitable nominee.”
Emmer did say, however, that the election in November was a chance to make America “great once more.” Days later, on May 26, he endorsed Trump, the only federal officeholder from Minnesota to do so in any official way.
Emmer makes a case for Trump
Emmer emerged as a prominent Minnesota Trump supporter partly out of process of elimination: among his Minnesota D.C. colleagues, Kline is retiring, and Paulsen has avoided Trump like the plague as he faces a challenge from State Sen. Terri Bonoff, who national Democrats recruited based on the idea that Trump makes down-ballot candidates vulnerable — especially in affluent, suburban districts like the Minnesota 3rd.
Other top Minnesota Republicans, like former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, have been lukewarm on Trump, while former Sen. Norm Coleman has repeatedly stated his opposition to the nominee in strong terms.
While Emmer might not be the most enthusiastic Trump surrogate, as far as Minnesota goes, he’ll do.
Off the convention floor, in a repurposed parking lot serving as the media center, Emmer made the case for why conservatives — some of whom remain upset over the process and wary of supporting Trump — should support the nominee.
“I think he’s made some really good decisions over the past few weeks in terms of his team, in terms of his approach,” Emmer said, saying that if Trump were not listening to the grassroots, “he wouldn’t have chosen Mike Pence as his running-mate. I mean, he’s listening loud and clear.”
“It shows you he’s going to start to surround himself with people who may know things he does not know,” Emmer said. “I know that Mike Pence understands the art of the legislative process. I know Donald Trump knows nothing about the art of the legislative process. So you have to look at the people he surrounds himself with, I think that gives you a pretty good message as to what kind of administration he’s going to be running.”
When asked if he was concerned at all about the ability of the Trump campaign to compete against Clinton, and if he was concerned over what appeared to be a clear case of plagiarism with Melania Trump’s Monday night convention speech, Emmer blamed the media.
“Here’s the thing, you’ve gotta have stories, and our national media tend to focus on things like that, which frankly are made for primetime news-tainment shows as opposed to factual shows,” Emmer said.
“Why don’t we focus on the fact that Donald Trump seems to be surging in the polls across America? I’ve never been a big fan of polls” he said, before citing polls showing Trump competitive with Clinton in key battleground states.
“The story here is there’s something going on across America.”
A disciplined politician
Not once during the primary process did Emmer suggest that there was one candidate that he, personally, wished would be the Republican nominee.
His public statements since Trump’s ascendance have not, like the statements of many, many others, been tinged with disappointment that someone like Rubio or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz did not ultimately win. (Cruz did carry Emmer’s congressional district on caucus night, but barely.)
That kind of discretion takes discipline — a quality that not all politicians have, certainly not a past iteration of Tom Emmer, something he himself is quick to acknowledge.
In St. Paul, on talk radio, and in his failed bid for governor in 2010, Emmer had a reputation as a partisan firebrand who relished a fight.
Since coming to Congress in 2015, Emmer has surprised Minnesota political observers on both sides of the aisle with a controversy-averse approach and a sober focus on lawmaking and policy. That has prompted chatter in Minnesota that Emmer has his eye on statewide office again — perhaps another run at the governor’s seat.
These days, Emmer says a good candidate needs to employ scripted, careful messaging alongside candid off-the-cuff remarks. He said that he was encouraged Trump was beginning to strike a balance, citing speeches he has given with a teleprompter.
“It’s called discipline,” he said. “This guy standing in front of you had to learn a little bit as I went through the process.”
As the general election heats up in earnest after the conventions conclude, Emmer says he plans to play an active role helping elect Republicans up and down the ticket. With his seat virtually a lock, he could be an asset for the Trump campaign in Minnesota.
As of now, though, he’s still finding that balance.
Even though he would go on to enthusiastically predict Trump as the “next president of the United States” on the RNC floor that night, Emmer declined to say if he thought his candidate would win his home state.
“I don’t think it’s wise to go out and make predictions like that.”