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After stunning defeat, Minnesota’s congressional Democrats consider their new, Trumpian reality

Rep. Keith Ellison
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Rep. Keith Ellison: “I do hope President Trump does well for the nation… The country ought to give him a chance to be successful, but on a very short leash.”

On November 7, Democrats in Minnesota were expecting an Election Day romp: the North Star State would help elect Hillary Clinton as the 45th president and Democrats would pick up a U.S. House seat — maybe two.

They awoke on November 9 to President-elect Donald J. Trump — who was within two percentage points of becoming the first Republican to win Minnesota since Richard Nixon — a pick up of zero U.S. House seats and close calls for three incumbents.

After eight years of achievement nationally and in Minnesota, it’s safe to say that Democrats now find themselves in a weakened position.

Now what?

What went wrong

Top Democrats in Minnesota and around the country utterly failed to see the Trump wave coming.

So did the press and pundits: forecasters like FiveThirtyEight, which had Trump’s chances to win the White House hovering around 25 percent, and the GOP’s chances to hold the U.S. Senate at around 55 percent.

Clinton defeated Trump by just 1.5 percent in Minnesota, largely on the strength of turnout from Hennepin County. Thirty-three Minnesota counties that went for Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012 backed Trump this cycle.

Democrats’ efforts to connect down-ballot Republicans like Rep. Erik Paulsen and Jason Lewis, in retrospect, were wastes of time and money, as voters in those places either went for Trump or split their tickets.

Jeff Blodgett
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen
Jeff Blodgett

Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan eked out a win over GOP challenger Stewart Mills in the 8th District by just over 2,000 votes, but in two races on no one’s radar — the 1st and 7th Districts — Reps. Tim Walz and Collin Peterson only narrowly defeated their challengers.

Democrats vastly underestimated Trump’s coattails, according to Jeff Blodgett, a longtime DFL operative. He said Democrats ran Clinton, an establishment candidate, in what clearly was a “change” election.
“People got comfortable voting for [Trump] as a change agent,” he said. “There may have been some new voters, turnout was up in non-metro parts of the state over 2012. We haven’t seen those patterns in a while. There could have been some conservative non-voters or infrequent voters who came out because of this election.”

“It was a change election,” he said, “and we had a candidate who didn’t represent change, and the other candidate did in spades.”

Rep. Keith Ellison put it bluntly: “It was sort of an American Brexit.”

Fighting back

Sen. Al Franken and Ellison, though surprised by Tuesday’s results, struck cautious notes in interviews, saying they wanted to find ways to work with the new GOP leadership where possible, while reiterating their opposition to them on key issues.

“I’m not like Rush Limbaugh,” Ellison said, referencing the radio host’s declaration upon Obama’s election that he hoped the new president would fail. “I do hope President Trump does well for the nation…  The country ought to give him a chance to be successful, but on a very short leash.”

Franken said he believes “there are areas where I have agreements with the President-elect… like on infrastructure. I believe that prosperity is paved by three things: education, research and development, and infrastructure. He wants to invest heavily in infrastructure, some of my Republican colleagues on the Hill don’t.”

In a statement, Sen. Amy Klobuchar identified infrastructure, along with tax reform and immigration reform, as areas where Democrats and Republicans could find common ground in the new Congress.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
MinnPost file photo by Devin Henry
Sen. Amy Klobuchar

On trade, Democrats may find an ally in Trump, who made his opposition to international trade pacts a hallmark of his campaign.

But Ellison expressed some skepticism that he’d follow through on his plans. “He says he’ll promote a fair trade policy, we’ll hold him to that,” Ellison said. “How’s this guy who’s having ties and suits and shirts manufactured in all these low-wage countries where human rights aren’t being respected — he’s going to be our trade champion?” he went on.

“I have my doubts about that. It’s hard to have a personality transplant.”

This line of thought is a recurring theme among Democrats: they aren’t sure what to make of the President-elect, because they don’t believe him, and have no idea what he might actually do as president.

Franken said that on key issues like immigration, he’s “not sure” what Trump will do. “I’m going to fight this mass deportation idea, but I’m not sure where the President-elect is on that, because I think he sent some mixed messages during the campaign,” he said, citing times Trump took a softer tone on immigration reform.

On the many areas where Democrats and Trump disagree, Minnesotans say they’ll use all the tools they have to block him and his GOP allies from implementing their agenda.

Franken said Democrats have the filibuster, and you can bet the minority party — which picked up two Senate seats in the election — will use it. (Republicans will have 52 seats in the new Senate, while Democrats will have 48.)

Republicans are already saying this could be a costly strategy for Democrats, arguing that the GOP’s election victories give them a governing mandate.

Franken pushed back against that, saying that their wins “certainly reflect the unhappiness of a lot of voters on where they are. There’s no question they wanted a change.”

But a mandate? Franken pointed out that Clinton, while she lost the Electoral College, is winning the popular vote. “I don’t think you announce you have a mandate when you didn’t win a plurality of the votes,” he said.

Where to go now?

Democrats’ defeat is prompting serious soul-searching within the party. The GOP has unified government in D.C. for the first time since 2006.

Did Democrats squander a winnable election by clearing the field for Clinton? Could Sen. Bernie Sanders, with his own populist politics, have defeated Trump?

Ellison, who was an early backer of Sanders, declined to entertain that alternate history. But there’s no question that he and others feel that the party now needs to go in a more progressive direction in order to win back working-class white voters, who once were the bedrock of the Democratic coalition.

“Clearly, we need to figure out as a party how to speak to and for people who are feeling squeezed economically, and I think we got off that,” Blodgett said.

“I do think the Democratic Party needs to go back to some of its populist roots, Paul Wellstone represented that, [Massachusetts Sen.] Elizabeth Warren does now, [Ohio Sen.] Sherrod Brown does… That to me is the logical path, especially in our region of the country.”

Before Trump was elected, Ellison told MinnPost that the Democrats “need to talk to a lot of low-income white folks who feel left out of this economy, and help them really see they are very important to our country, that they’re respected, and we want to work with them.”

“We really neglect the issue of class,” he said. “Trump is a skilled showman, and he’s exploiting this sense of exclusion to get elected. The only way we can stop another Trump is by changing the economics in low-income communities, including low-income white communities.”

Expect a vigorous debate within the party over how to pick up the pieces and move forward. Ellison could play a key role in that: the five-term congressman is likely to run to be the next chair of the Democratic National Committee, and has received the backing of Sanders and Democrats’ Senate leader, Chuck Schumer.

A silver lining to the loss: Democrats expressed something close to bemusement that a party that spent eight years railing against the president and Congress is now in the driver’s seat. “Now you’re driving the bus,” Ellison said. “It’s easier to criticize than to act.”

They struck similar notes when talking about Trump — a man who comes into the White House on the strength of sweeping promises that could prove extraordinarily difficult to keep. “He’s going to have to implement things that take time to implement,” Franken said. “He’s going to have to approach the job of president very differently than the job of running for president. Now he’s going to be confronting reality. Some of the things he’s been saying probably aren’t very realistic. He’s going have to adapt to that reality.”

Ellison echoed that, saying Trump can now no longer exist on rhetoric alone. “You are going to get a record. He is going to have to live or politically die with that record.”

“Our job is to make sure the public knows that record… We are at a national crossroads. No question about it. I’m not going to cry about it. I’m going to get busy about it.”

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Comments (10)

Mandate?

So a party that lost seats in the House and Senate, lost the popular vote for President and had some very near run contests for Electoral Votes has a "mandate" but neither of Obama's victories were mandate. Same old same old from the Republicans.

About FiveThirtyEight

Perhaps I misread the first two paragraphs under "What went wrong," but they appear to say that FiveThirtyEight "utterly failed to see the Trump wave coming" because it "had Trump’s chances to win the White House hovering around 25 percent." Maybe the problem is that people have a hard time grasping what a 25% chance means. Yes, it meant the FiveThirtyEight model saw the actual outcome as the less likely, a priori. But it also meant it saw it as a perfectly plausible outcome, one that could easily happen. I don't call that utterly failing to see something coming.

Talk is cheap

Data suggest that Trump is a 91% dishonest but a lot of people trusted him to be a change agent. Jason Lewis made outrageous statements to entertain his talk show audience, but wasn't willing to have people review the record of what he said. Rural Minnesotans have heard years of promises to make things better, and certainly expect the new Minnesota Republicans to deliver.

Let's me borrow the slogan of Missouri - show me! Republicans have made a boat load of promises. Which ones will they remember? Which ones will they pass into law? Which ones will they attempt to carry out without authorization! How many will be achieve their stated goals without bad side effect? They are now accountable to produce positive results!

Take the goals of universal coverage, lower costs and better health outcomes? Will Trumpcare be an improvement over Obamacare? That hundreds of thousands Minnesotans and tens of millions of Americans would lose coverage is not reform or progress, Trump has said he believes in getting even, settling scores, and we have seen him try to do that. Taking away healthcare from your opponents to punish them would be just that. If Trumpcare does that, its unpopularity will dwarf any bad feelings about Obamacare. And for house Republicans, you have two years to accomplish good things. It isn't much time and there is no remaking a first impression. Big talk, no action won't cut it.

A VERY Notable Difference

is that the Republicans (as was the case with "w"),...

will have Rush Limbaugh, weasel news, MSNBC, the rest of "conservative" media

and probably even the FBI,...

(where on earth is "Pamela Landy" when we need her?),...

providing a POWERFUL tail wind and smoke screen to distract from their failings,...

with the MSM and Public Media (for fear of loss of funding) repeating it all without critical comment.

Those same sources provided an even more powerful headwind against President Obama,...

and the campaign of Hillary Clinton.

The first thing

The first thing Democrats have to do is stop insulting those whites they hope will vote for them next time…

The Democrats DIDN'T Insult Them

though deplorable people are generally the FIRST to take (Delores?) Umbrage when you call them on it,...

(unlike the "worthless, lazy poor" who are so used to that insulting mischaracterization that it just rolls off),...

but "conservative" media told those angry white working class voters that they SHOULD be insulted,...

because HRC had called ALL of them "deplorable,"...

so, of course, they were.

"Conservative" media told them Trump WOULDN'T be like the Washington "insiders,"...

and they believed that too.

Dream on.

But they won't notice all the Washington insiders and lobbyists in his cabinet,...

because the "conservative" media will shout, "Look over there! There's a "liberal" doing something horrible!"....

and, by all means, ignore Trump's hand in your wallet pulling out your hard-earned cash,...

to hand to my rich friends.

Talk is Cheap

The democrats had 8 years of talking. Look where that got us? Thousands of people in MN who had health insurance for years before Obamacare are going to be out on the street come Jan 1. The Middle East is a blood bath, fueling the biggest mass migration of refugees since WW II, etc....

The next couple of years will be interesting. There's no question that whoever is in charge is going to have to deliver. If we have 4 more years of the same kind of gridlock, it's going to be an even bigger bloodbath for whoever is in office, regardless of which party they belong to.

I see that you are frustrated

What exactly do you want people to do? Which solutions do you think are the best ones?

Tails

"Democrats vastly underestimated Trump’s coattails, according to Jeff Blodgett, a longtime DFL operative."

We didn't believe Trump had them. I have been wrong a lot in my life, but I don't think I have ever been as wrong about anything as I was about Trump. I screwed up. Sure, there was a time or two when I that we were underestimating the strength of Trump. But I don't think I really believed. The America I knew would never, when it came down to it, elect a hoodlum as president. But we did, and that's the reality we will have to deal with for the rest of our lives. Nations don't come back from things like this.

In practical terms, I am thinking most of the Bonoff campaign. In retrospect, and let me say, I did not at all see this coming, it was a mistake to focus on Donald Trump, and attempting Paulsen to him. It's not that Trump was a positive in the third district, but he wasn't enough of a negative to drive the vote in down ballot races we now know in perfect hindsight.

America has been in a terminal condition for quite some time now. Our constitution, our democracy, afflicted by it's internal conditions has been failing, and now on Tuesday night it died. I don't know what will take it's place, perhaps nothing at all really, but the country we knew will never come back.

What went wrong??

I heard a democrat from NYC say the working class voters that backed Trump were voting against their own interests because the democrats voted for longer unemployment benefits and GOP did not.... I have news for you, working class folks DO NOT want Govt handouts they want jobs.

That mentality (elites totally out of touch) lost Democrats the presidency , governorships, and seats in congress... If you think an unemployed miner, tradesman, logger, oilman and regular folks care about a bathroom law when they can't feed their children, you too are part of the problem. Only elite out of touch folks think silly social issues, that affect less than 1% of the population, are more important than jobs...