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Minnesota is 2018 in a nutshell for Republicans

If Republicans are able to stem the Democratic tide rising in 2018, then Minnesota will be key.

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Dan Merica (CNN)
DULUTH, MINNESOTA (CNN) — If Republicans are able to stem the Democratic tide rising in 2018, then Minnesota will be key.

But the state, long home to liberal icons and seen as reliably Democratic in presidential years, also represents one of the clearest tests for a party trying to figure out how best to run as a Republican in the era of President Donald Trump, making it critical to the party's efforts going forward.

Republicans in the state feel Minnesota is headed the way of its neighbors and moving further right, a transition that took a big step in 2016 when Trump came within two percentage points of beating Hillary Clinton in the state. Democrats laugh off their Republican counterparts as unrealistic, noting that much of the state's growth has come from the liberal metropolitan Twin Cities and that no Republican has won statewide since Tim Pawlenty's gubernatorial campaign in 2006.

Trump has a personal stake in the state, too, sources close to the President tell CNN. After the 2016 election, Trump complained to his political aides that he could have won the state with one more raucous rally. And the results have Trump's top 2020 campaign aides believing that Minnesota is the best chance they have to turn a blue state red in two years, which is part of the reason the President rallied with supporters in Duluth on Wednesday night.

"You know, I hate to bring this up, we came this close to winning the state of Minnesota. And in two and a half years, it is going to be really easy," Trump said at the rally. "I needed one more visit, one more speech."

Home to five competitive House races, including three where Democrats now represent districts Trump won handily in 2016, two closely watched Senate races and a premier governor's contest, Minnesota could answer a host of questions about Trump, the future of the Republican Party and the political tilt of the Midwest come Election Day.

Running in the Trump era

If you ask Jennifer Carnahan, the chairwoman of the Minnesota Republican Party, it's not a question: Republicans should not run away from Trump.

"I think the biggest mistake any candidate can make at this juncture is to turn against or away from the President," Carnahan said ahead of the President's visit to the state on Wednesday.

But for many Republican candidates, especially those looking to compete statewide, things are not that cut and dry.

Enter Pawlenty, the last Republican to win a statewide race in Minnesota.

Pawlenty, after years away from the governor's office and a failed presidential bid, is running for a third term as governor of his home state. Once the prototype of the suburban Republican, Pawlenty is now running in a totally different era and has been confronted by the fact that he called Trump "unfit" and "unhinged" during the 2016 election.

So when Trump came to visit the state on Wednesday, Pawlenty wasn't there and instead dispatched his running mate to attend the rally. Trump repaid Pawlenty's no-show by failing to mention him once during the event, despite name-dropping other Republicans running in the state.

The snapshot represents the perils of running in the Trump era: Do you distance yourself from him and hope to win over disaffected Republicans but risk his ire? Or run with him and take all the unpredictable baggage that comes with that?

Pawlenty's calculus is clear: He is running in a statewide election where he will have to appeal to more than just base Republicans.

But not all Republicans in the state are following Pawlenty's lead.

Karin Housley, a Republican member of the Minnesota Senate who is running in a GOP primary to challenge Democratic Sen. Tina Smith, spoke at Trump's rally and starkly laid bare Minnesota's political split.

"We are not going to let out-of-touch, metro-area, liberal elites drown out your voices," she told the audience in Duluth.

And some candidates, like Pete Stauber, the Republican running to represent the Duluth area in Congress, are looking to be more surgical by noting Trump's power in Minnesota but pledging to break with him when needed.

"We are seeing Minnesota change," Stauber said after the rally. "People are fed up with the status quo and I believe we can and will turn Minnesota red in November."

And even though the congressional candidate tied himself to Trump on stage -- "Mr. President, these people support you. And Mr. President, these are the same people who are gong to send me to Washington," he said to cheers -- he also pledged to break with the President when needed.

"I will agree with the President when he has policies that support the 8th Congressional District," he said, "but will be the first to push back should the President pursue policies that directly harm the district."

A test for Democrats, too

While Republicans see Minnesota as the future of their party, some national Democrats in Washington acknowledge that they see places like Arizona and Georgia, two states with growing minority populations, as having more presidential map potential going forward.

Local Democrats, eager to burnish the state's liberal credentials in 2018, vehemently disagree with that vision of the future.

"I absolutely think they are wrong," said Ken Martin, the chair of the Minnesota Democratic--Farmer--Labor Party. "The reality is if we don't figure out a way to win in rural parts of our country and win in the industrial Midwest, we are not going to be able to win a presidential election."

But Democrats like Martin and others acknowledge that 2016 was a disappointing year for them, a fact some blame on Clinton and her campaign. The lessons they took away was not only that campaigns have to have an active presence in rural communities, but also that it isn't enough for a candidate to rely on base turnout in states like Minnesota.

Dan Feehan, a top Democratic recruit running in southern Minnesota with the backing of the national party, said Clinton largely ignored rural parts of the state, banking on higher than normal turnout in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"We had a turnout problem," he said. "There was an enthusiasm gap which makes me want to say, sure, acknowledge that President Trump carried this district but not read too much into it at the same time."

But the urban-rural political split that is playing out across the country is also starkly evident in Minnesota too. Rural voters are moving into the metro area, according to estimates from the US Census Bureau, which found the Minneapolis--St. Paul area has added a quarter-million people since 2010, a number that could significant shift the balance of political power in the state.

Republicans brag about winning 78 out of the state's 87 counties in 2016, failing to mention that they still lost the state by over 40,000 votes. But their point is clear: The liberals in the Twin Cities are overriding the will of the state.

Rural Democrats, like Joe Radinovich, one of a handful of candidates running to face Stauber in November, reject the idea that the party has lost rural America.

"At this point, it is a lot of bluster to me," Radinovich said, noting that voters in the 8th Congressional District are pragmatic people who pride themselves on reading through empty promises.

"I don't think Minnesotans are going to fall for it," he said of Trump and Stauber. "At the end of the day, they need someone they can count on."

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