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‘They forget about us.’ In Minnesota, moderate Democrats feel left behind by their party

DULUTH, Minn. — In the battleground state of Minnesota, where early voting in the presidential election is underway, Rebecca Yant has already cast her ballot for Joe Biden. But don’t mistake her support for excitement about the Democratic nominee.

“It’s a resignation vote, it’s not an enthusiasm vote,” said Yant, a self-described progressive who lives in Minneapolis and backed Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary. “I’m a Democrat by default. At this point, I think the Democratic Party is too centrist.”

A few hours north of the state’s largest metropolitan area, in the rural mining region known as the Iron Range, moderate Democrats like Chris Johnson are equally frustrated, albeit for different reasons.

Rebecca Yant visits the site where George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. A progressive, she says she already cast her ballot for Joe Biden, but is a “reluctant Democrat,” who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary. Sept. 21, 2020. Photo by Alex Wroblewski for PBS NewsHour

“The Democratic Party that we all grew up with has shifted too much to social issues” and away from an economic agenda aimed at helping the middle class and organized labor, said Johnson, the president of United Steelworkers Local 2705. “Democrats just assume that Minnesota will be blue, so they forget about us.”

But in 2020 that’s less of a guarantee than it once was.

With one month left before the Nov. 3 election and the presidential debates in full swing, the Trump campaign is seizing on the opportunity presented by voters who don’t feel the Democratic Party represents them anymore.

Biden had a double-digit lead over Trump in state polls earlier this year, but the gap has started to narrow in the final stretch of an unprecedented election that was thrown into further turmoil Friday with the news that the president had tested positive for the coronavirus. Trump spoke before thousands of people at a rally Wednesday in the Iron Range city of Duluth, the night before he announced his COVID-19 diagnosis. It was his second trip to northern Minnesota since early voting there began Sept. 18. Trump said he would begin a period of quarantine at the White House immediately, raising questions about when, or if, he would return to the campaign trail to make a final push for voters.

As the race tightens, it has highlighted the geographical split between urban and nonurban Democrats — a divide that was apparent in the Democratic primaries in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and many other states across the country, but one that has not been reconciled in the months since Biden secured the nomination.

A Trump billboard stands along the I-35 N highway between Minneapolis and Duluth, Minn. Sept. 21, 2020. Photo by Alex Wroblewski for PBS NewsHour

Minnesota has as many Electoral College votes as Wisconsin, which means winning there could act as a safety net if the president loses in some of the other Midwestern battleground states that helped him secure victory four years ago.

The strategy hinges on appealing to white rural voters outside Minneapolis-St. Paul who have little in common culturally or politically with progressives in the Twin Cities calling for police reform and other forms of societal change. That group of disaffected voters is mostly made up of non-college educated conservatives, but it also includes a growing number of middle- and working-class Democrats who feel abandoned by their party.

A closer look at the fracture helps explain why Trump remains so popular in Greater Minnesota, the term locals use to describe the areas of the state outside of the Twin Cities, as well as rural parts of other battleground states from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania.

“You go out in Greater Minnesota and the Trump 2020 signs are everywhere,” said Gregg Peppin, a Republican strategist. If Trump can pull off an upset, Peppin added, “you’re putting 10 Electoral College votes in play that haven’t been in the mix for Republicans before.”

A blue state, with an asterisk

Heading into November, Minnesota remains Biden’s to lose, but while a Trump victory there could scramble the Electoral College map in a close election, it wouldn’t come entirely out of nowhere.

Minnesota hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since President Richard Nixon in 1972. But Minnesota voters did send Jesse Ventura, a brash, straight-talking former professional wrestling star to the governor’s mansion in 1998. Ventura, who ran as a Reform Party candidate, was swept into statewide office on a wave of voter frustration with the political status quo, Peppin said.

That outsider, anti-elitist attitude has “only magnified since then. There was no one else on the national stage that tapped into that until Trump,” he said.

The president’s surprisingly strong finish in Minnesota four years ago proved there were more right-leaning Democrats in the state than anyone had expected, highlighting the slow exodus of white Democrats toward the Republican party that started under President Ronald Reagan.

Trump only campaigned once in Minnesota in 2016, passing up trips there in favor of focusing on nearby states like Wisconsin and Michigan where polls suggested much tighter races. Yet despite largely ignoring the state, Trump lost Minnesota to Hillary Clinton by just 44,593 votes, or 1.5 percentage points, making it the sixth-closest race in the country.

Republican turnout from 2012 to 2016 dropped in Hennepin County, the state’s largest county by far thanks to Minneapolis and its surrounding suburbs.

But Trump nearly made up the difference by increasing GOP turnout in two key areas: the western half of the state, where agriculture is the main economic sector and voters in farming communities were driven in part by Trump’s message of getting tough on trade with China; and the industrial Iron Range in northeast Minnesota, a longtime Democratic stronghold because of the strong presence of labor unions.

Trump’s gains with rank-and-file union members marked a significant break from the past for a state with a unique history of liberal populism embodied by its Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

The DFL formed with a 1944 merger between the state’s Democratic and Farmer-Labor parties. Over the following decades, the coalition produced national Democratic stars from Minnesota — including Vice Presidents Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, and Sen. Paul Wellstone — who were able to unite progressive urban liberals with moderate rural Democrats.

Today, that coalition is on life support.

Moderate Democrats said they’re no longer sure where they fit in the party. “I used to think that I was a progressive liberal. But now I think I’m more of a moderate liberal,” said Janet Nelson, a veteran Democratic Party activist in Duluth.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s struggle to gain traction as a presidential candidate in the 2020 Democratic primaries underscored just how much the party has changed since the days of Humphrey — and the opportunity Trump now has to pick up enough Democratic votes to tilt the state in his favor.

What it means to be a Democrat

Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Biden all visited Minnesota in September — a flurry of campaign activity marking its new status as a battleground state. The Trump campaign made headlines when six Democatic mayors in the Iron Range endorsed the president and appeared on stage with Pence at a rally in Duluth.

Virginia, Minnesota, Mayor Larry Cuffe, one of the six local officials who backed Trump, received hate mail from around the country after coming out in support of the president. Cuffe said in an interview that someone also drove by his house and threw bags of human feces and urine at his garage door. But Cuffe, a Vietnam veteran and retired law enforcement official, said like-minded Democrats have also thanked him for publicly admitting what many keep private out of a fear of being shunned by liberal friends and neighbors.

Mayor Larry Cuffe poses for a photo outside City Hall in Virginia, Minn., on Sept. 21, 2020. Cuffe was one of six Democratic mayors in the state who recently came out in support of President Donald Trump. Photo by Alex Wroblewski for PBS NewsHour

The party under Biden has “gone too far to the left,” Cuffe said. “I want to keep my firearm. I think abortion should be restricted to emergencies. [Progressive Democrats] are leaving Iron Range Democrats behind. If they had the same platform they had 15 years ago, it wouldn’t be an issue.”

In recent interviews in mining towns across the Iron Range, Democratic union members said the president’s popularity with rank-and-file workers has grown in his first term.

“Up here, in 2016 the mining industry was pretty much shut down. Steel mills were closing, and manufacturing plants were down,” said Dan Hill, the president of USW Local 6860. What Trump and the Republican Party “did to win our members was steal our playbook. How long has the USW been saying ‘Buy American, bring back jobs?’ They stole our message and did a better job of broadcasting it,” Hill said.

The message has continued to resonate with moderate voters, who have also grown frustrated with state Democratic lawmakers in the capitol in St. Paul for opposing mining and energy projects in Minnesota in recent years. Regulatory policies have hurt Democrats living outside of cities, union and local party leaders said.

“When you mentioned Democrats back in the ’80s and ’90s, you thought pro-union, pro-labor. Now you think clean energy and anti-mining,” said Johnson, who is still planning to vote for Biden in November.

In contrast, Trump has slashed environmental and energy regulations and promoted fossil fuel production. In 2018, as part of an escalating trade dispute with China, the Trump administration placed tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. Trump has claimed his trade moves made good on a 2016 campaign promise to revive the U.S. steel industry, despite evidence that jobs have still not rebounded from the Great Recession.

“He says he’s brought back jobs, the Range is roaring,” Johnson said. “No it’s not. Drive down Main Street and look at how many businesses are open. They’re mostly bars, for Christ’s sake.”

Indeed, on a recent afternoon in the small town of Eveleth, near the local union hall where Johnson and other union members gathered to discuss the upcoming election, bars with names like Sue’s Penalty Box were open for business while storefronts along the main drag stood empty.

Minnesota’s unemployment rate was 7.4 percent in August, according to the latest federal data, slightly less than the national unemployment rate of 8.4 percent and an improvement from last spring, when jobless claims in the state spiked in the first months of the coronavirus pandemic.

But the virus forced several mines on the Iron Range to temporarily close, and even before the public health crisis jobs were down in mining and logging, another major industry in a region that stretches all the way to the border with Canada. In August, mining and logging jobs in the state were down 18 percent from the same period a year ago, reflecting a broader trend that predates Trump’s presidency.

Still, Trump supporters in the region said the president deserves four more years. Many said they believed his claim that he created the strongest economy on record before the pandemic hit, though Biden and other Democrats have argued the growth began under former President Barack Obama.

Nick Carter, a Trump supporter who lives in Duluth, said he felt he was better off economically under Trump. “Presidents never keep their word. Nixon, Bush, none of them. Trump said he’d put his foot down and he did,” said Carter, a retired contractor who lives in Duluth. “I believe in Trump 100 percent.”

Voters who support Trump “have their blinders on,” said Steve Bonach, a union leader and lifelong Democrat. “What has opened back up around here? I don’t see it.”

’It’s a cultural thing’

The economy isn’t the only factor driving support for Trump in Minnesota. The issue of race and policing has also driven a wedge between Democrats, opening the door for Trump to pick up support from white moderate voters in Greater Minnesota who tend to be less liberal than the racially diverse coalition of Democrats presiding over Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Earlier this year, residents of Minneapolis sparked a nationwide protest over racial injustice after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a white police officer who kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes in front of a Cup Foods store in the city’s Powderhorn neighborhood.

The National Guard was called in to quell days of protesting, but not before the movement grew and expanded to major cities around the country. Four months after Floyd’s death, the site where he was killed remains blocked off to traffic so visitors can pay their respects at a series of memorials to Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans killed by police.

On an afternoon in late September, Yant, the reluctant Biden voter, was one of a dozen people visiting the site. Yant said she backed an effort in the wake of Floyd’s killing to defund the Minneapolis Police Department, though she acknowledged that the movement — stalled in the city, for now — had a “branding issue.”

“The term ‘defund the police’ scares away a lot of allies, but it’s what we need to do,” said Yant, who is white and works in retail.

Left to right: Devonne Mayweather poses for a photo near the site where George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, which has become a memorial. A few blocks away, a field of gravestones represents other victims of police violence. Sept. 21, 2020. Photos by Alex Wroblewski for PBS NewsHour

The sentiment was echoed by Black Minneapolis residents like Devonne Mayweather, a music producer who said he has been the victim of police aggression on multiple occasions. “I’ve had knees on my neck plenty of times,” Mayweather said. “It’s hard to breathe.”

Voting for Trump is a nonstarter, Mayweather said, but he did not express confidence that the lives of Black Americans would improve under Biden, either. Mayweather added that he doubted many white Democrats in Greater Minnesota could relate to his own experiences, or understand his perspective. “Even in the same state, we’re divided,” he said.

In Duluth, Beth McCuskey, a white retired public school teacher, said she was alarmed at first when her daughter, who lives in Minneapolis, told her she was participating in the protests over Floyd’s death.

“Being her mom, I was very afraid. But she has forced me to think outside the box,” said McCuskey, a Democrat who is active in her local labor union. The protests forced many white people, especially in mostly white communities outside the Twin Cities, to confront their own prejudices, she said. “It’s uncomfortable for people to talk about having biases when they think they don’t.”

Hill, the Democratic union president, said voters in the Iron Range who are drifting toward Trump have embraced his law-and-order warnings about “radical left-wing groups” taking over the streets of the country, though protests across the country have been largely peaceful and there is little threat of real violence in their own communities.

“It’s almost a cultural thing more than a political thing. Some people think it’s cool to wear a MAGA hat,” he said.

Voters who are supporting or even just considering backing the president won’t be swayed by calls for racial justice or arguments from Trump critics that he is racist, Hill added. “I don’t think you’re ever going to get this area to focus on the social issues going on in the city,” he said.

In Greater Minnesota, “we believe in law and order, old fashioned values and supporting our police,” said Scott Dane, a Trump supporter who spoke at the Republican National Convention in August. These days, more Iron Range Democrats relate to that view than they do to the liberal mindset that’s taken hold in Minneapolis, he added, creating an opening for Trump to win the state.

Scott Dane stands outside his home in Gilbert, Minn., on Sept. 21, 2020. He is a supporter of President Donald Trump who spoke at the Republican National Convention in August. Photo by Alex Wroblewski for PBS NewsHour

At a late September meeting of Democratic activists in Duluth, Joel Heller, a member of the DFL’s executive committee, said he could not envision his party losing the state in November after an unbroken winning streak of nearly 50 years.

Heller struck a note of optimism for Biden, but it sounded more like a plea. “Up on the Range, we elect good, moderate Democrats. Voters are not going to elect Trump. They’re just not.”

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