If there’s a state where Donald Trump is deeply toxic, look up north. Minnesota’s famously polite culture is inhospitable to the businessman’s swagger. The state gave Trump a rare third-place finish in its caucuses, handing Marco Rubio his only victory on the nominating calendar. Most importantly, three of the state’s eight House races are highly competitive—and all serve as a referendum of sorts on Trump’s presidential campaign.
To fill the seat of retiring GOP Rep. John Kline, the district’s Republican activists endorsed a politically incorrect former radio-talk-show host (Jason Lewis) over a more seasoned state legislator. The Democratic candidate, businesswoman Angie Craig, would be the first woman to represent the suburban Twin Cities district. In parallels to the presidential campaign, Craig has called Lewis “sexist and ignorant” as she tries to tie her possible GOP rival to Trump.
In the neighboring suburban district held by GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen, Trump’s candidacy is also looming large. Paulsen, who has cruised to victory since his first election in 2008, faces a difficult challenge from state Sen. Terri Bonoff, a moderate who is trying to handcuff Paulsen to his party’s presidential nominee. Her entrance in the race in April was a direct consequence of Trump locking down the GOP nomination.
And up on the state’s rural Iron Range, Trump’s appeal is a major wild card in a rematch between Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan and Republican businessman Stewart Mills. This is Minnesota’s version of Trump country, where the businessman won more votes than in any other district in the state’s March caucuses. But the working-class district also leans Democratic, and Nolan was one of the few targeted House Democrats to prevail in the 2014 midterms.
The path to any Democratic House majority runs through Minnesota: To win control of the House, the Democrats need to sweep suburban seats like those around the Twin Cities, and perform credibly in competitive rural districts where Trump polls best. If Trump is a drag on down-ballot Republicans, as his skeptics claim, the first signs of turmoil would take place in Minnesota. If Democrats can pick up winnable seats that they haven’t cracked in a long while, it would indicate the potential for a wave against Trump. But if Republicans hold serve in the suburbs and mount a surprising pick-up in a traditionally blue-collar Democratic district, Trump will prove he has coattails of his own.
1. There are two simple reasons why attempts at a third-party conservative candidacy haven’t gotten traction. First, few Republicans would want to play spoiler when polls show matchups between Trump and Hillary Clinton to be highly competitive. Second, the notion that a three-way race could (at worst) block the winner from receiving a majority of electoral votes is fanciful. Even in states with a notable anti-Trump Republican constituency (Virginia or Colorado, for instance), any third-party candidate would split the GOP vote and hand the state’s electoral votes to Clinton.
The only way that a third-party bid would have any chance of success is if Republican voters rejected Trump en masse. But with national polls showing most Republican voters rallying behind the businessman—in sharp contrast to the party’s leadership—the only consequence of a third-party candidate aligned with the GOP would be to guarantee the election to Clinton.
2. For many true-believing conservatives, one of the most dispiriting elements of the primary races was that so many self-proclaimed “very conservative” voters supported such a heterodox nominee. But as the Trump phenomenon has demonstrated, their conservatism was rooted more in an antiestablishment attitude than a clear set of ideological principles.
That dynamic was apparent in numerous GOP primaries during the 2014 midterms, when one of the most potent lines of attack against sitting Republican senators was that they’d been in Washington too long.
“One of the things we found out in 2014 was this D.C. narrative that these voters were strictly adhering to a conservative platform wasn’t accurate. There were a lot of reasons why people voted against the party establishment—a strict interpretation of the Constitution wasn’t one of them,” said Josh Holmes, Mitch McConnell’s former chief of staff.
3. The sleeper Senate race to watch this year will be in Arizona, where Sen. John McCain is facing his most serious political threat in his three-decade congressional career. His opponent in the Aug. 30 primary is Kelli Ward, a conservative former state senator. And a more serious challenger, Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, awaits in November. Trump’s nomination could spur higher-than-usual Hispanic turnout for Democrats, and long-standing conservative antipathy towards McCain could make the difference in a close race.