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With Franken’s fall, the ‘Trump effect’ could turn Minnesota red — if Republicans embrace him

Camille Fine

Sen. Al Franken’s career ended in the most public, embarrassing way possible. Given this development, is it possible that Minnesota could “turn red” in next year’s midterm election?

Few outside the state — and many inside of it — appreciate how well President Trump did in what has for decades been a Democratic stronghold. He came within 40,000 votes of beating Hillary Clinton, won 78 out of 87 counties and shocked the state’s political establishment.

What few realize is that there’s a real opportunity for Minnesota to join the Republican column. But it’s only likely to happen if the state’s Republicans embrace the issues that Trump has championed.

{mosads}Franken embarrassed Minnesota well before his decision to resign. He was hyper-partisan and accomplished little of substance in his own right as a senator. He was successful, however, as a fundraiser for the Democratic Party. And his resignation creates an unusual opportunity for Minnesotans to vote for two U.S. senators next November.


Minnesota’s Democratic Governor Mark Dayton appointed his lieutenant governor, Tina Flint Smith, to fill Franken’s slot until the general election in November. Smith is a liberal, behind-the-scenes political operator who served for several years as vice president of Planned Parenthood. This is a credential she downplays, and that local media mostly ignores. It’s for good reason: Minnesotans aren’t abortion extremists.

State Representative Karin Housley is the only declared Republican candidate for Senate, although there is speculation that former Gov. Tim Pawlenty may get in the race, despite polling poorly.

She represents a suburban district, is a successful real estate professional and is married to Phil Housley, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015. Hockey credentials are real in Minnesota, though they are hardly determinative. 

Housley has excited a portion of the Republican base, but it remains to be seen if she can mount a credible challenge to Smith, who is supported by a strong state party system, along with a national network of donors. Minnesota Republicans have not won a statewide race in more than a decade, and their party is the butt of jokes in Washington.

But with a bit of courage and some risk-taking, Republicans could deliver a real choice to Minnesota voters, similar to what Trump ran on successfully.

One example is the issue of mining in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. Trump won Minnesota’s 8th congressional district by 15 points in a solidly Democratic region. It was the first time that the city of Hibbing, birthplace of Bob Dylan, went for a Republican since Calvin Coolidge. 

This month, the Trump administration moved to renew a copper and nickel mining operation in the region that President Obama refused to renew in his final weeks in office. Obama’s decision was widely unpopular; as a result, Trump has capitalized on an issue few thought politicians would touch.

Forced refugee migration is another issue that can work to Republicans’ advantage. Two Republican gubernatorial candidates recently called for a “pause” of refugee migration into the state until the costs and impact on localities can be accurately assessed. Any Republican senatorial candidate would do well to embrace the same position and advocate for it without apology or fear. Like their national counterparts, Democrats in Minnesota have few arguments on immigration outside of name-calling.

There are other Trump issues that would serve Minnesota Republicans as well: lower taxes, less regulation, a strong military and a return of common sense to the political sphere. How those issues play out is up to individual candidates; there is no lock-step formula.

It’s also worthwhile to remember that Wisconsin voted for Trump. The contrast between Republicans in Minnesota and those in Wisconsin is like night and day: Those in Wisconsin advocate for conservative policies unabashedly, while their counterparts in Minnesota have been much more apologetic and prone to retreat. This difference shows in the successes experienced in Wisconsin versus the “treading water” status quo in Minnesota. 

Next November, that could change. If Minnesota voters associate their local candidates with Trump and his policies, there’s a very real chance that the state could join others like it — such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that have joined the Republican column for the first time in decades. The only question still before us is whether the state’s candidates will have enough sense to embrace Trump’s winning policies.

John Gilmore is the executive director of Minnesota Media Monitor, a nonpartisan group that promotes transparency and accountability in state media, and the host of “Gilmore & Guests” on Twin Cities News Talk, KTLK AM 1130. He also edits Minnesota Conservatives.

Tags Al Franken Al Franken Donald Trump Donald Trump Hillary Clinton John Gilmore Mark Dayton Minnesota Tim Pawlenty Tina Smith

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