During his first year and a half in office, President Donald Trump has proven unable to resist the lure of the campaign trail: the president has frequently stumped on behalf of Republican candidates in a slate of special elections and primary contests ahead of this November’s crucial midterm elections.
Until last week, Trump had not yet held a rally on behalf of a GOP general election candidate for the U.S. House — and the first one he chose to back in person was none other than Pete Stauber, the former Duluth police lieutenant running in the open-seat race for Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District.
At a raucous rally last Wednesday in Duluth’s AmSoil Arena, Trump riffed on favorite topics, from Hillary Clinton to immigration to the “elites,” but he took time to give the 8,000-strong capacity crowd a few reasons to support Stauber. "Pete is a great guy," Trump said. “He is a great guy, he loves you and he loves this country, and he’s doing fantastically. We’re going to win so much.”
Trump isn’t the only one that thinks there’ll be so much winning in the 8th District come election day: state and national Republicans are giddy about their chances to flip this longtime Democratic stronghold, which spans much of northeastern Minnesota, from Duluth and the Iron Range to the northern suburbs of the Twin Cities and the Brainerd Lakes region.
With incumbent DFL Rep. Rick Nolan off the ballot and several Democrats battling each other to get on it, Republicans are confident that Stauber can put this district — which preferred Trump by 15 points in 2016 — in GOP hands once and for all, after coming very close in the last two elections.
The president’s visit — aimed at boosting voter enthusiasm as well as Stauber’s profile at home and further afield — can only help the first-time candidate’s chances, according to his campaign and Republicans who back him. And having an opponent so closely aligned with Trump presents challenges for the five DFL candidates, several of whom are threading a tight needle of winning over Trump-hating primary voters while making inroads with independent-minded general election voters.
Both the GOP and DFL camps agree on one thing: Trump’s early visit to northeastern Minnesota ensures, yet again, that the 8th District will be one of the most contentious, and expensive, U.S. House races in the country.
Fertile turf for Trumpism
In almost every way, Minnesota’s 8th District was a perfect early 2018 general election destination for the president, since it checks every important political box: it’s a largely rural, working-class region that has voted Democratic for decades, but has proven favorable turf for Trump and his message.
Moreover, there’s a big prize at stake: the 8th is one of a few bona fide pick-up opportunities for House Republicans this November, and a potential bright spot in an election season where Democrats have a distinct advantage, thanks to their polling edge and the boost the party out of power historically gets in a midterm year. With no primary challenge and a profile national Republicans love — a clean-cut cop and hockey player who attended Trump’s inauguration — Stauber was likely an easy selection for presidential support.
Not only is CD8 a place where the GOP is eager to prove the enduring popularity of Trump and loyal candidates, it’s also a natural place to tout Trumpism. Beyond using his visit to boost Stauber, the president also pushed his aggressive trade policy, which has included steep penalties on imported steel and aluminum.
While big business, farmers, and manufacturers have blasted the tariffs, in northeastern Minnesota — where the iron mining industry still holds great political and cultural sway — voters have cheered them, and held them up as signs that Trump is keeping his campaign promises.
That’s a big reason why Trump may have been eager to first visit CD8, as opposed to another Minnesota district Republicans are eager to flip — the 1st District, which spans a farm-heavy expanse of southern Minnesota, and which voted for Trump by the same margin as CD8. U.S. agriculture products have been the first to be targeted by Canada, Mexico, Europe, and China for retaliatory tariffs, and have dismayed the district’s influential farm sector.
Heading to northeastern Minnesota and backing Stauber provided a chance for Trump to look strong on politics and policy, according to Tim Lindberg, a professor of politics at the University of Minnesota-Morris.
“It’s kind of a combination of things Trump has done that have arguably hurt some people in the U.S., have hurt less up there. And some of the things he’s doing are at least seen as being helpful to the average person,” Lindberg said.
In his brief speech to the crowd in Duluth, Stauber homed in on the president’s message, as he stood behind the presidential podium, flanked by Trump, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Minnesota Republican Reps. Tom Emmer and Jason Lewis.
“I’m running because, like President Trump, I love this country, I love our freedoms, and I love our constitution,” he said. Looking at the president, he went on: “You promised more jobs, fewer regulations, and a better economy for everyone… Jobs are up, unemployment is at a historic low, small business and manufacturing are surging, and optimism is at an all-time high!”
Speaking to MinnPost a few days after the rally, Stauber said the president’s visit underscores how important the CD8 race is to the GOP. “This is the number one priority pick-up for the Republicans in the entire nation,” he said. “We’re very happy… For northern Minnesotans to see the president, for my family getting to meet the president — my daughter was in tears when the president came in and introduced himself — it was very special.”
Stauber said Trump was very personable and showed interest in issues that matter to Minnesota, particularly mining and manufacturing. “President Trump so appreciates that small business, mining, and manufacturing are economic drivers for our region,” he said.
In the days following the rally, the Stauber campaign has seen an uptick in volunteer interest and social media engagement. They also fundraised heavily off the Trump visit, sending multiple emails to supporters. (“He's going to ask how fundraising is going when he sees me, and I want to be able to say you’re standing with us,” Stauber wrote in an email the day before the rally.)
Republicans were quick to point to the overflowing lines to get into the arena, and the capacity crowd that filled it, as indicative of the president’s enduring support in the district. Trump notched nearly 54 percent of the vote here in 2016, outperforming the last GOP congressional candidate, Stewart Mills, by 17,690 votes. (Mills lost to Nolan by less than one percentage point.)
If Trump supporters show up to vote for Stauber this fall like they did for Trump in 2016, it’ll be good news for the GOP. But Lindberg says that a June rally, no matter how well-attended, won’t say much about how fired up the Trump base will be to show up and vote in November.
“He’s all about the optics of the event,” Lindberg said of Trump. “AmSoil is not a huge arena, it’s not hard to fill it up. He’s got enough huge fans in the region to fill it up, so it’s not hard to make it a big event in that sense… It’s hard to read anything into it other than he’s got a really enthusiastic core still, which no one is surprised at.”
Aaron Brown, a blogger and longtime observer of northeastern Minnesota politics, said Trump’s visit did underscore a few things — namely, that the president has a real, dedicated base of support in the region.
“It's impossible to say what that means exactly in terms of the amount of his support relative to Democrats, but it suggests to me that the voter mix from 2016 is more or less the same,” he wrote to MinnPost.
“I don't know if Trump's at 54 percent approval in CD8 right now, but I feel like he's at least at 50. I feel strongly that Stauber's take in CD8 will be exactly the same as Trump's approval. Therefore, the Duluth rally would suggest to me that Stauber starts the cycle ahead, and perhaps over 50 percent.”
Democrats figure out how to respond
CD8 Democrats, who are immersed in a five-way primary to determine their general election candidate, were not lacking in enthusiasm of their own in countering Trump’s visit to Duluth, which is the progressive heart of the district. DFL candidates running both in the district and statewide, backed by officials and activists, held rallies and counter-demonstrations, drawing crowds around the city.
The CD8 candidates themselves, however, are caught in the position of figuring out how to navigate a race where their opponent has been enthusiastically backed by the president — a man most CD8 voters supported.
Michelle Lee, a veteran TV news anchor in Duluth, has been the most vocally anti-Trump candidate, and she attended the DFL’s Trump counter-rally. “There’s the party of Trump and then there’s our party, we the people,” Lee said in a Facebook video taken at the event. Trump, she said, “seems to thrive on stirring the pot and getting people upset. That’s not who I am.”
Joe Radinovich, a former state representative from Crosby and a candidate in the DFL primary for the CD8 seat, said his campaign’s overall plan is, “we’re going to talk about our progressive values, and expect that’s going to move progressive voters our way, but we’re going to be judicious about taking on the president.”
Radinovich said that, in traveling the district, he has not sensed any dissipation in the numbers or intensity of Trump support. “That’s a little bit worrisome,” he said, adding that Trump’s campaign-trail crack that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue in Manhattan and not lose supporters “seems to be as true as it was when he said it.”
“It’s a real, vexing problem.” But he added that Trump brought out new and infrequent voters, who may be less inclined to turn out during a midterm year. “The way a lot of people could get through Trump country this year is because a lot of the Trump people, I suspect, aren’t normal voters,” Radinovich says. “The question is whether they’ll show up.”
The double-edged sword of Trump stumping
Whether or not core Trump supporters stay involved and show up in CD8, then, may depend on how much Trump himself stays involved in the race. Candidates across the country will be competing to get a slice of the president’s travel time — including several in Minnesota.
A few of them were even on hand for the Duluth rally, including Jim Hagedorn, who is running in the 1st District, Karin Housley, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Tina Smith, and Jeff Johnson, the GOP’s endorsed candidate for governor. Housley was an opening speaker in the rally and got a shout-out from the president; Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Michelle Fischbach, who is gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty's running-mate, also got praised by Trump, though the president himself has stayed mum on Pawlenty, a former critic of his.
After backing candidates who later flopped — particularly Roy Moore, the U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama, and Rick Saccone, the Republican running in a blue-collar Pennsylvania House district — Trump and his team appear to be wary about wading into races that don’t seem like slam dunks.
At a rally for South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster on Monday, Trump urged people to get out and vote in a run-off, framing the contest as a battle for his reputation. “You know that if a horrible thing happened and we weren't lucky enough to have Henry win, you know they won't talk about it, they will say Donald Trump suffered a major, major defeat in the great state of South Carolina,” Trump said. “So please get your asses out tomorrow and vote." (Indeed, McMaster successfully fended off his GOP challenger on Tuesday.)
It’s possible, then, that in Minnesota races with competitive GOP primaries — such as the 1st District contest and the governor’s race — Trump may sit it out until the general election.
Democrats like Radinovich hope that, the longer Trump is in office, people will notice he is failing to do the things he said he’d do, and the more his support in places like CD8 will drop. “I think we’ll see dissipation in Trump’s support,” he said. “I wish that were happening at a faster rate, because I don’t believe the president has made good on his word.”
Other DFL candidates, like state Rep. Jason Metsa, are actively making that case, too. In a statement to MinnPost, Metsa said Trump hasn’t kept his promises to support workers and lower health care costs. “Not only does Pete Stauber stand by these broken promises, he’d double down on tax cuts for the rich and taking away health care from millions of families,” he said.
Lindberg, of UM-Morris, said it would be a strong indication of support for Stauber among top Republicans if Trump does return to the district later in the election season. Stauber, for one, is expecting to see Air Force One touch down in northern Minnesota again.
“The enthusiasm is extremely high for the president’s pro-growth, pro-jobs agenda,” Stauber said. “I can tell you, he loves the state of Minnesota and our people… We will welcome the president’s return at some point. We would be very excited to host him again.”