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What legislative candidates talk about when they talk about Trump

Trump’s latest controversy has forced Republicans running in districts across Minnesota to employ a host of strategies when it comes to talking to voters about the GOP presidential candidate.

It’s been a challenging reality for Republicans in a state that made its feelings about Donald Trump known early on, handing him a third place finish in its March 1 presidential caucuses.
REUTERS/Mike Segar

This fall, every Republican candidate for the Minnesota Legislature has one issue in common: Donald Trump.

The Republican presidential nominee is the only candidate anchoring the Republican ticket in Minnesota this year, an unusual election with no other statewide races on the ballot. It’s been a challenging reality for Republicans in a state that made its feelings about Trump known early on, handing him a third-place finish in its March 1 presidential caucuses. At the time, Minnesotans overwhelmingly preferred Marco Rubio, giving the senator from Florida his only first-place victory of the night.

But Rubio’s candidacy foundered, and Trump has been a moving target since he clinched the nomination in July. He’s gone up and down in the polls and made plenty of controversial comments since then, including those revealed in a recently leaked tape from 2005 in which he brags about inappropriately grabbing and kissing women, saying that, “when you’re a star, they let you do it.”

The high-profile controversy has forced many Republicans running in legislative districts across the state to figure out how, exactly, they should talk about Trump this fall. “The presidential race has been a big topic of discussion,” Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, said. “When someone while I’m door knocking wants to talk, it’s more often about the presidential race than anything else.”

Denouncing — and pivoting

In the aftermath of Trump’s most recent comments, some Republicans have decided to pull their support completely, including Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, who is in the middle of a campaign to maintain the GOP’s control of the 134-seat House. Previously, Daudt would not outright denounce Trump, simply saying his focus was on the race for the House this fall.

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“I believe Minnesotans and Americans are looking for strong conservative leadership that can unite our country, but it’s clear that Donald Trump cannot and will not provide that leadership and necessary contrast with the far-left vision of Hillary Clinton,” Daudt said in a statement after the comments were released. “I strongly urge his campaign to consider what’s best for the future of our country and our party, and step aside so we can defeat Hillary Clinton.”

State Rep. Sarah Anderson
State Rep. Sarah Anderson

In the affluent suburbs of the Twin Cities, where Trump is particularly unpopular with many women swing voters, candidates like Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, now say they won’t be voting for the Republican nominee. “I cannot and will not support Donald Trump for president,” Anderson wrote in a statement released over the weekend. “He has shown he is not fit to lead time and again. I will not support Hillary Clinton either. Both candidates lack the quality of character our country needs to unite.”

When out knocking on doors, many other candidates simply try to pivot quickly from Trump to local races. If voters don’t want to support Trump, they say, it’s still important to get out and vote for other local races down the ballot. Those will actually have a day-to-day effect on their lives.

“If voters bring it up, I just have to chuckle,” said Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar. “We all kind of roll our eyes when we think about the top of the ticket, for both sides. I focus on what I can do in my race. I really want to let them know that it’s really important to vote. Your state Senate and your state House vote will have much bigger impact on your life.”

Knoblach, who is in a race to keep his St. Cloud-area seat — the single most expensive House race in the state — said he doesn’t have any plans to endorse Trump, and has taken to social media twice to condemn his comments during the campaign. He’s told voters who say they don’t want to vote for Trump to consider writing someone in for president, or even consider Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. Most of all, he said, he tells people to just show up. “For Republicans who just absolutely can’t stand Trump, I think that those are alternatives,” he said.  

State Sen. Michelle Benson
State Sen. Michelle Benson

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, has been out knocking on doors across the state to try to win back the majority in the upper chamber. She said a familiar script has formed in districts across the state. “It starts with frustration and disappointment; ‘How did we end up with these two at the top of the ticket?’” she said. “The person at the doors brings it up, the candidate will acknowledge their concern and move on to, ‘Well, this is what I’m running on and I want to be your voice in St. Paul.’” 

But Senate Republicans have gone a different route from their counterparts in the House. Instead of denouncing Trump, leadership is letting candidates in each of the 67 districts handle the situation however they see fit. “We trust the judgment of our candidates,” Benson said. “They know their districts.”

Talking Trump in rural Minnesota

In some parts of the state, Trump is still far more popular than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Republican operatives say.

That’s particularly true in rural Minnesota, where the conversations around Trump are very different from what they are in the Twin Cities and its suburbs.

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“I see this part of the state is trending toward support for Trump,” said Sandy Layman, a Republican candidate running for House seat 5B, a district of mostly townships in Cass and Itasca counties. “The state of Minnesota wanted to see a race between Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders. But even if people aren’t crazy about Donald Trump, they’re so wanting and ready for change. DFLers and Republicans both have a strong distaste for Hillary Clinton.”

Still, Layman doesn’t associate herself with any candidate, including Trump. She’s hearing more and more voters saying they don’t affiliate with a political party anymore. “If I bring up the fact that I’m running as a Republican at the door, they say, ‘That really doesn’t make a difference to me. I used to be a Democrat or a Republican and now I’m voting for the person,’” Layman said. “People are a little more independent this year, which I like.”