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Against Trump before he was for him: the wisdom of Daudt’s delicate dance

Republicans may be tempted to use Daudt’s one-time rejection of Trump against the Minnesota Speaker of the House. That would be a mistake.

When he was asked by a reporter if he had any regrets for distancing himself from Donald Trump, House Speaker Kurt Daudt responded: “I supported Trump, I voted for him, I'm happy he won.”
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday

Five weeks ago, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was on life support. After the release of a shocking video of Trump making vulgar remarks about women in 2005, numerous Republicans in Minnesota announced they could no longer support Trump’s candidacy for president.

The timing of Trump becoming politically radioactive presented a big problem to Minnesota Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt.

Daudt wasn’t just focused on his own re-election — as caucus leader, he wanted to ensure Republicans retained control of the Minnesota House of Representatives. But the repeated headlines about Trump’s inappropriate comments and allegations of past sexual assaults made that job of more difficult, especially since Democrats were trying very hard to nationalize local elections by connecting Trump to every Republican candidate running for office in 2016.

Daudt knew he needed to put a firewall between Trump and Republican candidates running for the Minnesota House of Representatives. So he issued a carefully worded statement in early October that separated the House Republican Caucus, including himself, from the GOP presidential nominee. The statement said, in part, that “Trump’s behavior and comments toward women are unacceptable, and disqualifying for someone who hopes to serve as Commander In Chief.”

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He added that Trump could not provide the “strong conservative leadership that can unite our country,” and that he “urged [Trump’s campaign] to consider what’s best for the future of our country and our party, and step aside so we can defeat Hillary Clinton.”

It was a bold move. And for a time, Daudt seemed to stand by it. When Trump visited Minnesota just days before Election Day, Daudt was absent. Nobody questioned why Daudt wasn’t on stage. If you call for your party’s nominee to consider ending their campaign for president, it is unlikely you’ll continue to attend their campaign events.

But in a television interview on the day Trump visited Minnesota, Daudt acknowledged Trump’s candidacy was resonating with many Americans, and then went on to say people will be surprised with how well Trump would perform on Election Day.

Trump wins

And then it happened. On Election Day, Trump defeated Clinton to become the 45th president of the United States. Meanwhile, Republicans not only held on to control of the Minnesota House — they actually increased their majority, while their colleagues in the Senate won a narrow majority in that chamber.

The day after the election, the Speaker stood proudly at a press conference on the steps of the State Office Building with members and members-elect of the House Republican Caucus. When he was asked by a reporter if he had any regrets for distancing himself from Trump, Daudt responded: “I supported Trump, I voted for him, I’m happy he won.”

In the span of one month, Daudt went from being vocally critical of Trump to privately voting for Trump, and then to publicly boasting that he was happy that Trump won.

People could characterize Daudt’s decision to publicly distance himself (and his caucus) from Trump and then voting for him as an example of the political double-talk Trump campaigned against. But in the euphoria of Election Day, the “Always Trump” and “Never Trump” wings of the Republican Party were too busy celebrating to focus on their differences.

And to be fair, Daudt always kept a cautious distance from Trump’s candidacy during the election cycle. Trump was not Daudt’s first or second choice for president. He initially chaired Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s presidential campaign in Minnesota. After Walker’s campaign ended, Daudt threw his support to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign, and was later elected as a Rubio delegate to the Republican National Convention.

Political stock on the rise

Daudt’s political stock in Minnesota was on the rise before Election Day, and post-election, he’s never had more political clout. He was frequently mentioned as a possible candidate for governor in 2018 before last Tuesday’s election. After the House GOP’s Election Day success, he’ll be considered the front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor if he decides to run.

Should he decide to run, though, Daudt’s muted support of Trump’s candidacy prior to Election Day is likely become an issue. Republicans love purity in their candidates, and a new Trump litmus test could be a new measuring stick. 

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But it be would be a mistake for Republicans to judge Daudt too harshly on the wall he placed between himself, the House Republican Caucus and Trump. The political reality was that the electoral landscape required someone to protect Republican candidates from being linked too closely with Trump. He made a political calculation, one based on what he knew at the time. 

And now, both Daudt and Trump can call themselves winners, and that makes Republicans very happy, regardless of whether their relationship is complicated.