AGAINST THE GRAIN

Minnesota Nice vs. GOP Impaler

Democratic candidates try to yoke the their opponents to the big-talking presidential candidate.

Protesters arrive before Donald Trump's meeting with Paul Ryan in Washington.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
May 17, 2016, 9:30 p.m.

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.

TRAIL MIX:

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.  

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