Before Donald Trump almost became the first Republican presidential candidate to carry Minnesota in 40 years, there was a time when few Minnesotans wanted to be associated with him.
On March 1, when Minnesotans went to caucus for presidential candidates, they largely rejected Trump. Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz combined to take over two-thirds of the vote; Trump netted 21 percent, one of his worst primary showings nationwide.
Minnesota’s two most senior Republican congressmen, Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen, had both backed Rubio. Neither would attend the Republican National Convention in July that officially handed Trump the GOP nomination.
But one of Minnesota’s representatives in Washington was in Cleveland, and in the nominee’s luxury box, no less: 6th District Rep. Tom Emmer. After staying neutral in the primary, Emmer enthusiastically backed Trump in May, and continued to do so throughout the general election.
As Emmer hitched himself to the Trump train, some wondered what might happen to him when that train inevitably went over a cliff.
But it didn’t. Now, Emmer finds himself the most prominent Minnesotan backer of President-elect Trump. What does that mean for him, and what does he expect from the new administration?
Emmer quiet in the primaries
When some of his GOP congressional colleagues endorsed Trump’s competitors, or even attacked Trump, Emmer exhibited a quality that, for a long time, wasn’t his signature: caution.
As a radio host, and in his failed bid for governor in 2010, Emmer developed a reputation as a partisan bomb-thrower who relished a fight.
His first term in Congress, though, seemed devoted to convincing people that he had turned over a new leaf, favoring a gentler, here-to-listen approach over an argumentative one. Emmer shied away from controversy and touted his work with Democrats like Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and collaborated with Rep. Keith Ellison on a caucus devoted to Somali-American issues.
The GOP’s primary process was a good example of his new strategy. As the field formed and Trump splashed into the race, Emmer stayed silent. Through the year, as his colleagues went on record in support of Rubio, Cruz, and other candidates, Emmer played it safe, not even mentioning specific candidates he liked.
Looking back, Emmer says it wasn’t his place to endorse someone before the process played out.
“At the risk of being critical of my colleagues, I don’t think the people I represent much care about my opinion when it comes to who they should vote for, especially in a hotly contested primary,” he said.
“We thought the best thing to do was wait until someone accumulates the number of delegates necessary, endorse them, and be done with it.”
“It was as simple as that,” Emmer said, adding that he “got more compliments by the fact I didn’t endorse.”
Indeed, that caution may have served Emmer well. By declining to endorse any candidate, he made few enemies in a district where Rubio and Cruz tied in the caucus, and Trump was only 10 points behind.
And Emmer stuck with Trump, even as tapes were released in October revealing Trump bragging about groping women, leaving him looking like the Minnesota GOP’s team player after the scandal forced Paulsen to denounce Trump.
If Clinton had won, as many believed she would, such a move might have tarnished Emmer’s political future. But Trump romped to an Electoral College win, came within 45,000 votes of winning Minnesota, and carried Emmer’s district by 26 points.
‘Obamacare as it exists will be done’
Now, things are looking pretty good for Tom Emmer. His party holds the White House and both chambers of Congress.
Again, Emmer urged caution, saying Republicans shouldn’t get ahead of themselves.
“I don’t think America voted for Republicans,” he said. “I think America was sending a very strong message that we don’t like the way things are going… We want some changes.”
The change agent, Emmer said, was clearly Trump. “Now you have this awesome responsibility, and you need to deliver,” he says.
So what might that look like?
This is how Emmer envisions the first year of a Trump presidency: aggressive action to roll back key Obama administration policies, like the Affordable Care Act, as well as strong moves to implement long-awaited GOP policies on border security, tax reform, and national security.
“Keep in mind we’ve had a president in the last eight years who, he’s only been able to get a few major pieces of legislation through the people’s process,” Emmer said. “Instead of working with Congress and the American people to get his agenda passed… he did 80 to 90 percent of his work through executive order.”
“You can expect much of the executive rulings, the imperial presidency, will be going off the books.”
“In the first hundred days, the Affordable Care Act is going to be dealt with,” Emmer said. He did not say definitively whether he endorsed the plan Senate leaders have discussed, which would repeal and replace the law on a three-year timeline, or if he wanted everything done sooner.
He did say “the policy will take a little bit longer, but Obamacare as it exists is done. It will not exist after February.”
On other issues, like trade and border security, it’s unclear what Trump really wants to do. Is his call for a 35 percent tariff on some imports a bluff, or does he mean it? What about the wall, or the Muslim ban?
You might think this level of uncertainty would frustrate a lawmaker like Emmer, particularly when Trump has said things that both align with and oppose his policy views.
For example, the congressman, who is a supporter of free trade, is broadly at odds with his president, who made criticism of trade deals central to his candidacy. (Emmer never took an official stance on TPP, but did vote in 2015 for the “fast-track” mechanism that can advance TPP and other trade pacts more easily.)
Many now anticipate a protectionist Trump, a notion bolstered by his call for those sky-high tariffs. But Emmer suggested there might be more at work. “Is this an opening statement or is it something that he truly believes he wants to implement?” he asked “I don’t know yet. I doubt it.”
On the border wall and the ban on Muslim immigration into the U.S., Emmer dismissed Trump’s extreme positions as campaign rhetoric. “I think where it’s going to go is, stop the inflammatory talk, let’s stop the finger-pointing, let’s sit down and make sure that we craft policy or reform existing policy that meets the number one obligation of our federal government which is to protect the homeland and American citizens.”
Emmer did express opposition to the idea of a ban on Muslims entering the country. “This country does not have a religious litmus test,” he said. “That’s why we have this country.”
Like other Republicans, though, Emmer has spun Trump’s broad ambiguity as an asset. “I think he’s making some very calculated statements, and he’s doing some things that move the ball in a different direction.”
Between his cautious embrace of Trump, and his surprising victory, Emmer appears to have managed a baffling political situation — one that vexed many of his colleagues — and made it look pretty easy.
He’s not having a bad career year, either. Emmer won re-election easily, earning 235,000 votes, a record for a Republican House member in Minnesota.
In his first term, Emmer quietly and diligently did all the things an ambitious lawmaker needs to do to build a reputation and rise through the House hierarchy. This month, Emmer was rewarded with a seat on the influential Republican Steering Committee, one of the least senior members to nab a coveted post there.
Luke Yurczyk, chair of the CD6 Republican Party, says Emmer has come a long way from his failed bid for governor. “He’s taking a slightly different tone” in Congress, he said. “I think he’s the same person we’ve always known, but he’s maybe changed his tune from that race.”
Sitting his office — where he sleeps when Congress is in session — Emmer is hardly radio jock fire-and-brimstone. After answering questions about Trump’s agenda, its inconsistencies and uncertainties, Emmer wrapped up the interview, almost radiating calm.
“The glass is always half full,” he said, “and the sky is always blue.”
Correction: This article previously misstated Emmer’s position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.