Why an endangered Republican Senate majority is targeting Minnesota in 2020

It’s been a hectic few years for Minnesota’s Democratic Sen. Tina Smith. First appointed in 2018 to replace former Sen. Al Franken after he resigned in late 2017 amid sexual harassment allegations, Smith had less than a full year in Congress before her first election as senator — a special to determine who served out the few years remaining in Franken’s term, which she won by more than 10 points.

Now, she’s on the ballot for a full six-year term of her own: Come November, Smith will face Republican Jason Lewis (known for once complaining that it was no longer socially acceptable to call women “sluts”).

Smith has a net +13 approval rating, according to Morning Consult; Minnesota is a habitually Democratic state, even as it has become more competitive in presidential elections. But Republicans are determined not to make things easy for her in 2020.

After narrowly losing Minnesota to Hillary Clinton in 2016, President Donald Trump took to Twitter last year to call his shot: “In 2020,” he tweeted, “because of America hating anti-Semite Rep. Omar, & the fact that Minnesota is having its best economic year ever, I will win the State!”

That makes Minnesota one of relatively few target states for a GOP Senate majority that’s looking imperiled. There are vulnerable Republican senators on defense in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and North Carolina, to name just a few — but the party has also decided to invest heavily in the only upper-Midwestern state it failed to flip in 2016.

The Trump campaign is spending like they mean it: According to the ad tracking site AdAge, Trump has about $14.1 million in TV advertising booked in Minnesota through November 3 — more than his team is putting into Michigan, Wisconsin, or Arizona, at least for now — and his campaign is spending more in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market than it is anywhere outside of Florida.

An investment on that scale by the Trump team isn’t just a positive for the president’s chances in the state. It’s also good news for Lewis, who’s so in line with the president in agenda and style that his political future in the state is almost certain to rise and fall with Trump’s.

“We’ve been working hard in this state for well over a year,” Minnesota GOP chair Jennifer Carnahan told Vox. “And that’s a more impressive effort and focus than we’ve ever put in Minnesota if you go back probably even two decades.”

Jason Lewis was a Trump-style candidate before it was popular

Smith’s opponent this fall, Jason Lewis, is a former one-term representative who was ousted from the seat by Democratic Rep. Angie Craig in 2018. Before his brief stint in Congress, he was a controversial right-wing radio host in Minnesota with a long history of racist and sexist comments, and he’s been tagged as a “mini-Trump” since at least May 2016, well before he won his House primary.

President Donald Trump greets Rep. Jason Lewis at a campaign rally at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, Minnesota, on October 4, 2018.
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

In 2020, that makes Lewis less of an outlier than he was four years ago, when, according to Roll Call’s Simone Pathé, the National Republican Congressional Committee took a pass on congratulating him the night of his primary win.

But even if it’s Trump’s GOP now, not every Republican Senate candidate is running toward the president with open arms. In Colorado, for example, incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner has focused more on burnishing his bipartisan credentials than defending Trump, as Vox’s Ella Nilsen points out in her deep dive on the Colorado Senate race.

Republican politicos in Colorado say Gardner will still have to forge ahead with the independent “happy warrior” campaign ethos that got him to the Senate in the first place.

“Trump is not going to win Colorado,” Colorado Republican consultant Tyler Sandberg, who ran former Rep. Mike Coffman’s House campaigns, told Vox. “I think it’s a show, not tell thing. [Gardner’s] got to demonstrate that he’s different.”

Not so for Lewis: If Trump loses Minnesota this November, Lewis will go down with the ship. The two are so simpatico that one senior member of the Smith campaign refers to the Trump team in Minnesota as “Jason Lewis’s shadow campaign infrastructure.”

On the campaign trail, Lewis hasn’t shied away from those similarities. Late last month, he told voters in Rochester that the “fundamental duty of government is restoring public order and backing the blue” and decried the state’s coronavirus lockdown as “Orwellian.” And on Twitter, he’s embraced the near-apocalyptic rhetoric that Trump has deployed against Biden, arguing that Democrats are “coming after God” and want to “dismantle American society.”

Unlike Lewis, who didn’t make his first foray into formal politics until 2016, Smith has a long history in Minnesota politics. A former Planned Parenthood executive in the state, she served as chief of staff first to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak — a job that reportedly earned her the name “the velvet hammer” — and then to Gov. Mark Dayton before becoming Minnesota’s lieutenant governor in 2015.

As a candidate, Smith has emphasized her fairly moderate record and her willingness to reach across the aisle; in a Zoom debate with Lewis last month, she stressed her focus on “practical, commonsense things that we can work on in a bipartisan way.”

But David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul, says that Smith’s quiet, efficient legislative style comes with some challenges.

“She doesn’t come across, I think, as sort of the natural campaigner in the way that [former Sen Al. Franken] did,” Schultz said, and “she’s kind of been lost next to Amy Klobuchar,” Minnesota’s senior senator and a one-time Democratic presidential candidate.

Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party chair Ken Martin concedes that “people are still getting to know Tina,” but when they do, he’s confident they’ll like what they see.

“The last two years in particular,” he says, Smith has “kept her nose to the grindstone and just worked on being a good senator and doing her job and making sure that she represents Minnesota in Washington, and that work has not gone unnoticed.”

Historically, Minnesota isn’t much of a swing state. But Trump and the state GOP think they can make it one.

If Lewis — and Trump — want to flip Minnesota red in 2020, they have a lot of history to contend with. Minnesota hasn’t gone for the GOP in a presidential election since 1972, when incumbent Richard Nixon won every state but Massachusetts, giving it an 11-election streak of supporting Democratic presidential candidates.

Clinton’s 2016 margin in the state may also have made Minnesota look more vulnerable for Democrats than it actually is. Though Clinton in 2016 only won by about 44,000 votes — out of nearly 3 million cast statewide — University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs says Clinton “made monstrous errors in how she ran that race.”

Schultz, the Hamline University professor, agrees.

“Clinton basically ran a bad campaign,” Schultz says. “She gets destroyed by Bernie Sanders in the caucuses, doesn’t come back to campaign here after she loses, and what happens? You know, she basically took the state for granted.”

Still, Trump’s Republican Party sees a glimmer of hope. FiveThirtyEight has made the argument that Minnesota has become redder. As Nathaniel Rakich noted, “In 1984, the state was 18.2 points more Democratic than the nation as a whole. But in 2016, for the first time since 1952, Minnesota voted more Republican than the rest of the U.S.”

Schultz, who in 2018 co-authored a book on presidential swing states, thinks there’s something to that. Part of the close margin in Minnesota in 2016 was Clinton, he says, but part of it is just demographics: Schultz argues that Minnesota is genuinely trending purple.

And Carnahan, the state GOP chair, believes that the protests and unrest that have followed the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, as well as the police shooting of Jacob Blake, which left him paralyzed below the waist, could be what push the state past its tipping point.

Marques Armstrong holds up a picture of George Floyd at a demonstration on June 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Though nationwide protests calling for racial justice and police reform have been largely peaceful (about 93 percent peaceful, according to one study), some cities — notably Minneapolis; Kenosha, Wisconsin; and Portland, Oregon — have seen rioting, fires, and violent clashes between police, protesters, and pro-Trump militias, including two deadly shootings.

“I do see a momentum shift in Minnesota,” Carnahan told Vox in July, “and a lot of that has been driven by a governor in our state and mayors of the two largest cities that completely let every single person in the state down by letting our cities burn for a week and sitting on their hands and doing nothing.”

According to Schulz, there was a version of a law-and-order message that could have worked for Trump, but he believes Trump missed the mark by leaning so hard into the politics of white racial resentment.

“If [Trump] made the same messaging about law and order without the powerful racial overtones that he’s using,” Schultz said, “he might get to here. He might get some of those suburban voters to listen to him who are very concerned about what happened in Minneapolis and St. Paul.”

If Lewis wants to pull off a win, he’ll likely need to thread the same needle, though his history of racist comments and close ties to Trump could make that difficult. But Schultz isn’t ruling anything out.

“The Senate race is even tighter,” he told Vox over email this month. “George Floyd and the law-and-order reaction to it are part of the explanation.”

The coronavirus overshadows a lot of other issues

Even if Minnesota is on its way to perennial swing-state status, though, and even if there is — or was — a building suburban backlash to civil unrest and “defund the police” rhetoric from activists, 2020 isn’t shaping up to be the best year to test either theory.

With fewer than 60 days to go until November 3, the coronavirus pandemic has shaken up the electoral map. Former Vice President Joe Biden leads Trump by about 7.5 points nationally according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average, and even states like Texas, Ohio, and Iowa are starting to look tight for the president, though Trump retains a lead in all three. That could make it harder for Trump and the National Republican Senatorial Committee to expand their map and press the attack in states like Minnesota.

“The number one issue in the minds of Minnesotans is the same one that we’re seeing everywhere,” Jacobs told Vox in July. “Which is: We’ve got a pandemic, it’s clearly not under control, even where there are businesses that are open, consumers are scared to go out, and the Republican Party of Minnesota has sided with the president,” whose approval rating on his handling of the coronavirus outbreak is hovering around 39 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight.

That reality hasn’t changed in the intervening months, but the race has still narrowed, at least at the Senate level. While FiveThirtyEight has Biden up in Minnesota by an average of 7.4 points, a handful of Senate polls suggest that Smith’s lead could be as little as 2 or 3 points versus Lewis.

Other polls, however, have better news for Smith — Public Policy Polling has her up by 8 points, to name one — and race ratings give an unclear picture at best. The Cook Political Report relabeled the Minnesota Senate race in July, moving it from “Likely D” to “Solid D,” and it hasn’t moved since then.

Whatever the polls show, though, the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party — essentially an anachronistic name for the state Democratic Party — is feeling good about Smith’s chances in November.

“We wouldn’t trade our starting position right now with theirs,” Martin, the state DFL chair, said.

Help keep Vox free for all

Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work, and helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world. Contribute today from as little as $3.