The danger of political waves is they often create undertow.
Watergate ultimately turned a Richard Nixon surge in Minnesota into such a brutal backlash that the state Republican Party changed its name. Only a few years later, the hubris of DFL Gov. Wendy Anderson in appointing himself to the U.S. Senate sank Democrats. Only a few years before, he had won re-election by more than 30 points.
But there’s never been a wave quite like President Donald Trump. And while it’s impossible to know exactly what impact the president will have on the party in 2018 or beyond, we asked three different kinds of Republicans — old school GOPers Chuck Slocum and former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger; current party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan; and current Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka — where they think the Republican Party is headed in age of Trump.
The old school
There was an obvious reason to seek out the views of Durenberger and Slocum. Once upon a time, they were players amid another big wave. In 1972, Richard Nixon became the last Republican presidential candidate to carry Minnesota, defeating Democrat George McGovern. Nixon’s victory was so complete he even carried Hennepin County.
But by 1974, the Watergate scandal had erupted in full and the Minnesota GOP was in retreat. In the 1974 legislative races, DFLers won 104 seats. The GOP? 30.
So in 1975, Slocum, then the 28-year-old chairman of the state party, led the move to change the name of the state party from Republican to Independent Republican Party.
Yet changing the party name was only partially an effort to separate the state GOP from Nixon, Slocum said. It was also an attempt to broaden the party base. Slocum said that leading up to the state party’s convention of 1975, surveys were conducted that showed a name would be looked upon favorably by 3 percent of the state’s independents. “In an election, 3 percent is huge,’’ said Slocum.
Today, Slocum sees parallels in people who reluctantly voted for Trump and those who reluctantly voted for Nixon in 1972. “Nixon was never deeply popular in Minnesota,” Slocum said. “He did carry the state. But that was because McGovern was about equal to Hillary.”
For his part, Durenberger believes that a Trump-led party has cut itself off from its old base. He’s been open about the fact that he didn’t vote for Trump, and said most of the Minnesota Republicans he knows of his generation also didn’t vote for the president.
“I think there were two things that led to what we have,” Durenberger said. “There are some people who voted for the Republican because they just couldn’t vote for the Democrat. The way many see it is that the Democrats have just gone too far. And I guess some people see him as an agent for change. I see him more as an accident of time. Once we were a party of ideology. Now it seems the party is personality driven.”
The party chair
Trump was not Jennifer Carnahan’s first choice to be her party’s presidential nominee. Her favorite candidate was Jeb Bush. When he dropped out of the race, she opted to support Marco Rubio. But she says she’s all in on Trump now.
Trump didn’t carry Minnesota, of course, but Hillary Clinton won the state by just 1.4 percent. And with Trump at the top of the ticket, Republicans swept rural Minnesota, taking control of the state Senate as well as the House. “The Trump wave brought in activists who are an integral part of the party,” Carnahan said. “I think even my own election [to party chairwoman in April] was part of that wave. I was from the outside, I have a business background and I was a new face.”
Carnahan, who went to Syracuse University with the hope of becoming a sports television anchor like fellow alum Bob Costas, is certainly a new face to party politics. Born in South Korea, she was adopted by a Minnesota couple and worked for two major league baseball teams before deciding that the road to a sports broadcasting career was filled with too many unpredictable curves. She moved into business, working in marketing for such companies as Dayton’s, Ecolab and McDonald’s before opening her own boutique clothing store.
It wasn’t until 2016 that she got involved in politics. Tired of high taxes — “the government taking, taking, taking” — she showed up for her first GOP caucus and ran as a Republican for state Senate against DFLer Bobby Joe Champion. She got hammered by 56 points in her heavily DFL Minneapolis district. But she remains undaunted, insisting that her experience in that race will help the GOP gain urban votes — and that her inexperience in politics is ultimately an asset for the party. “People are tired of all the politicians who talk but don’t say anything,” she said.
Carnahan doesn’t dispute that many of the new party enthusiasts are driven to the party by the president’s personality. “There’s no question his personality is part of why many support him,” said Carnahan. “Many of his most ardent supporters liked his style when he was a TV celebrity. They liked his style on ‘The Apprentice.’ They know him as the person who owned the Miss Universe pageant and who has been hugely successful in business.”
Her job, she said, is to bridge the gap that exists between those new activists and the more restrained Republicans of another era. “It’s my job to help the gentleman who made his money in business and the Christian conservatives and the new activists see that we’re all probably 90 percent alike in the things we believe,” she said.
The majority leader
Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka believes that it’s the combination of Trump’s style and his substance that explains Trump’s success, especially across large swaths of rural Minnesota. “President Trump’s policies have resonated with people who feel they’ve been forgotten, particularly blue collar, middle class voters,” Gazelka wrote in an e-mail. “They like that President Trump is old enough to express common sense ideas and stand up for the little guy instead of pandering to the political class.”
On the other hand, Trump’s style is the antithesis of Gazelka’s. Gazelka is a deeply religious, conservative man, one who takes pride in being respectful to those who disagree with him. “President Trump’s impulsive tweets do get in the way of his message,” Gazelka wrote. “I hope that by the time the 2018 elections come around, we’ll be talking about his accomplishments.’’
Big opportunities, big challenges
Carnahan believes that those inspired by Trump’s style remain not only enthusiastic about the president, and the party, but that “the Trump wave is going to sweep through the elections of 2018.” Indeed, though the biggest goal for the Minnesota GOP in 2018 is the governor’s race, with DFL Rep. Tim Walz announcing he’s running for governor, Carnahan says the 1st Congressional District has also become a prime GOP target.
And yet, the Republican Party of Minnesota still faces substantial challenges, not the least of which remains the party’s debt. And if Durenberger is correct — that old-school Republicans are dismayed by the man at the top — raising funds may become more complicated. Will the new wave of Republican supporters have the wherewithal or desire to back their enthusiasm for the president with money for the state party?
“Maybe these new people can’t write big checks,” Carnahan said. “But what if they contribute $10 a month. If you get 5,000 of those, it can more than make up the difference.”
Carnahan admits she can’t talk politics with most of her old friends, many of whom are appalled by the president. She likes to call herself “someone in the middle.” But she’s also the head of the state party, and often sounds like a true believer.
When asked about her personal response to the president’s periodic twitter outbursts and the negative media storms they create, she says: “I feel like the liberal media will say what they want to say. I also believe people will believe what they want to believe. His ardent supporters will stay with him no matter what.”
That may be true — public opinion polls have so far borne that out.
But Durenberger, who has seen waves come and go, suspects most elected Republican officials — at all levels of government — aren’t so ardent when it comes to Trump, and suspects that many are already preparing lifeboat strategies in case the latest wave is followed by an undertow.
As he notes: “Politicians have good survival instincts.”