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Trump and his Minnesota mini-me set out to flip the state red

By Alex Isenstadt

For President Donald Trump, Minnesota is the one that got away in 2016. Now he’s fixated on flipping the state in 2020 — with the help of a provocative ex-radio host whose rantings earned him the nickname “mini-Trump.”

Former GOP Rep. Jason Lewis is expected to launch his Minnesota Senate bid on Thursday with guidance from two of Trump's top political lieutenants. After losing Minnesota by just 1.5 percentage points, the president has told aides repeatedly in recent weeks that he’s determined to win the Democratic stronghold, which hasn’t gone for a Republican presidential candidate since 1972.

Trump’s push reflects his broader reelection blueprint, which is focused on a cluster of Midwestern and Rust Belt states that were decided by razor-thin margins in 2016 and are likely to determine the outcome of the election. Hoping to offset what they concede will be deep deficits in metropolitan centers and suburbs, the president’s advisers are formulating a strategy geared toward amping up conservative turnout in rural areas.

In Minnesota, that means loading up on Trump, plus a rough facsimile of him. The 63-year-old Lewis, who lavished praise on the president during an October 2018 rally with the commander in chief, has embraced Trump’s smash-mouth style as he rails against political correctness. He’s hinted that he’ll run as a Trump foot soldier, recently telling a Minnesota news outlet that “I don’t think it pays to run away from a Trump presidency.”

Helping to steer the Lewis campaign will be Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, both of whom also work as top consultants on Trump’s reelection campaign and formerly served in the White House. Stepien argued in a memo this week that Minnesota bears a striking resemblance to Pennsylvania, which backed Trump in 2016. It was the first time the state went Republican in a presidential race since 1988.

While both states have urban areas where Trump is deeply unpopular, Stepien wrote that they also have sizable rural and blue-collar populations. Trump lost Pennsylvania’s suburban and urban counties by a larger margin than Mitt Romney did in the 2012 presidential race. But he won the state’s smaller and more rural counties by a larger margin.

The pattern was similar in Minnesota, where Trump lost the counties surrounding the Twin Cities by a larger margin than Romney but won the state’s rural reaches by more.

Trump’s narrow loss in Minnesota, Stepien noted, was the closest any Republican presidential hopeful came to winning Minnesota since 1984.

“Most importantly, the 2016 results revealed a previously concealed pathway to statewide victory in 2020,” he added.

Republicans concede their odds are long in Minnesota: They haven’t won a statewide race in there since 2006. They acknowledge Trump has done little to repair his standing with suburban voters who remain a key part of the electorate, and Lewis comes to the race with baggage.

Former Rep. Jason Lewis makes his concession speech after losing his reelection bid in 2018.

As a radio talk show host from 2009 to 2014, he complained that women can no longer be called “sluts” and described people on governmental assistance as “parasites,” among other incendiary remarks.

Lewis has said it was his job as a radio host to be provocative. He lost reelection to his suburban Twin Cities seat in 2018 after a single term. The Democratic incumbent, Sen. Tina Smith, was appointed to the seat after Al Franken resigned. She subsequently won a special election in 2018.

Trump has made clear he thinks Minnesota is within reach. The president mentioned the state during a recent White House gathering with congressional leaders and top party strategists. He wrote on Twitter last month that he “almost won Minnesota” in 2016 and predicted 2020 would be different.

The national party has been pouring resources into the state. The Republican National Committee has nearly a dozen full-time staffers in Minnesota. By comparison, the party had just one full-time staffer in the state in 2016, and that aide was diverted to another battleground before Election Day.

Representatives from the Trump campaign recently traveled to Minnesota to convene a meeting with Lewis and Minnesota GOP officials, who said they need as much help as possible.

“We haven’t seen this level of impact and involvement or focus on our state in perhaps decades, maybe even longer than that,” said Minnesota GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan.

Minnesota Democratic Party Chairman Ken Martin said his party needs to take the threat seriously.

“While we’re engaged in an internecine battle figuring out who our nominee is going to be, they’re already out there talking to general election voters and organizing,” Martin said.

“Could Trump win Minnesota?” Martin asked. “Absolutely.”

The Minnesota offensive is part of a broader Republican foray into blue states. Republicans enjoy a massive financial advantage over Democrats, and by playing in places like Minnesota, New Hampshire, and New Mexico they hope to force Democrats to spend resources on liberal-leaning states as opposed to more competitive battlegrounds.

During a presentation to major donors in Jackson Hole, Wyo., earlier this week, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner highlighted the Trump campaign’s organizational and financial advantages and spoke about its efforts to expand the map into states the president lost in 2016. He specifically mentioned the number of staffers the campaign has deployed to Minnesota, according to one attendee.

Republicans are also zeroing in on a Democratic-held House seat in the conservative western part of the state. Senior party officials have been trying to recruit former Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach to run against Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson.

Lewis’ allies have been talking up his prospects. Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who has been informally advising the former congressman, said he recently told National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Todd Young that a major Trump investment in Minnesota could turn Lewis into a serious contender.

While the contest wouldn’t start out as a top-tier pickup opportunity for the GOP, Cramer said in an interview, it could well become one down the line.

“It could be a sleeper,” he said.

Democrats are bound to link Lewis to Trump, a strategy the party used with success in 2018. But those close to the former congressman say his willingness to embrace the president could be an advantage.

Mike Lindell, a major GOP donor and Lewis ally who hails from the state, noted that during the 2018 campaign then-GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen’s aired TV ads in which he distanced himself from the president. Paulsen went on to lose the race for the suburban Twin Cities seat.

“If you distance yourself,” said Lindell, founder of pillow company My Pillow, “you’re going to lose.”