Trump’s Steel Tariffs Boost His Electoral Appeal on Iron Range

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s steel import tariffs have offended the free-trade instincts of many fellow Republicans, but on northern Minnesota’s traditionally Democratic Iron Range he’s hoping they’ll pay political dividends.

Trump is scheduled to arrive in northern Minnesota Wednesday evening for a campaign-style rally in the Lake Superior port city of Duluth, aiming to bolster Republican efforts to hold control of the U.S. House in the November election as well as his own bid for re-election two years from now.

The hardscrabble region has a long history of boom-and-bust economies and has fallen victim to cheaper steel imports that have forced U.S. producers to close area taconite mines and curb production. The 25 percent steel tariffs Trump imposed June 1 could boost local jobs, at least in the short-term.

Trump’s campaign organization is seeking to flip Minnesota into the Republican column in the 2020 presidential race, something that hasn’t happened since Richard Nixon won it in 1972. Minnesota also figures to play an oversized role in the first midterm congressional campaign of Trump’s presidency, with four of its eight U.S. House seats rated as tossups.

California, with seven times as many residents, is the only other state with that many districts rated the same way by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to win the House.

Republican Target

Duluth is the biggest city in Minnesota’s sprawling 8th congressional district, which Trump won in 2016 with 54.2 percent of the vote. His appeal to working-class and rural voters helped him upend the Democratic tradition there and he carried three of the seven Iron Range counties.

Republicans view the district as one of their best pick-up opportunities in a year when Democrats are showing strength in candidate recruitment, fundraising and other metrics. Democratic Representative Richard Nolan, who has held the seat for three terms, isn’t seeking re-election.

Republican Pete Stauber, 52, a county commissioner and former Duluth police officer running for the seat, said many in the region support Trump’s trade moves. “Action needed to be taken to protect the U.S. steel industry and the jobs here on the Iron Range,” he said.

In March, Stauber said Trump called him without any advance notice and asked what he could do to help. Stauber said he asked the president to pay a visit.

Trump’s Appeal

“The intensity and support for President Trump is as good as it was for him on Election Day,” said Stauber, a former professional hockey player. “He’s very, very popular in the 8th congressional district.”

Two of the other races rated as tossups in the state are contests where Republican incumbents are running in suburban and exurban swing districts around the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Trump carried one of those districts in 2016, while Democrat Hillary Clinton won the other.

The third, in southeastern Minnesota, doesn’t have an incumbent running. Its largest city, Rochester, is home to the Mayo Clinic and has above-average levels of educational attainment and income, a less favorable profile for Trump.

Blois Olson, a communications strategist who once managed a Democratic congressional campaign in the state and publishes a five-day-a-week note on Minnesota politics, said Trump is likely to be more helpful in the 8th district than in Minnesota’s three other highly competitive House races.

Staying Power

“It is a snapshot of the voters Trump attracted away from Democrats in 2016,” he said. “It’s a test to see what kind of staying power Trump has on these issues, especially trade and steel and environmental regulations.”

Stauber is the only Republican running for the seat, while five Democrats are competing in the Aug. 14 primary. Through March 31, he’d raised four times as much money as the closest Democrat.

Olson called Stauber a “very different candidate” than Republicans have put forward in the past, citing his status as an elected official from the district’s biggest county and residency in its biggest city. “He has a base out of the largest population center to build from and he will have an appeal on the Iron Range,” he said.

Stauber’s strong ties to hockey, an obsession for many Minnesotans, is likely to also provide a boost. Robb Stauber, a brother who was head coach for the women’s hockey team that won gold at this year’s Olympic Games in South Korea, will also speak at the Trump rally.

Campaign Deployments

The president’s visit to the district follows a debate that’s played out among White House advisers since the start of the year on how best to deploy Trump in the midterm campaign. While Vice President Mike Pence has been dispatched widely to smaller events and to raise money for candidates, Trump’s aides have taken a more cautious approach with his appearances.

Trump’s 2020 campaign declined to comment beyond a June 11 statement it issued announcing the Duluth event. That statement said Trump would speak about “latest economic news for our surging economy, including record-low unemployment and new trade reforms.”

Minnesota has historically been a Democratic stronghold. Republicans have had some success in statewide offices, but it currently has a Democratic governor, two Democrats represent the state in the U.S. Senate and two former Democratic vice presidents called it home.

But Clinton won the state by just 1.5 percentage points, reflecting strength for Trump. His 2020 campaign manager is already reportedly targeting the state for the re-election race, along with another state Clinton won, Colorado.

Bid for State

Trump took a run at Minnesota in the closing days of the 2016 campaign, headlining a rally the Sunday before the election.

His upcoming visit there is putting some of the state’s candidates, including the top Republican running for governor, Tim Pawlenty, in the awkward position of trying to decide how closely they want to embrace a president who remains deeply unpopular among Democrats and independent voters. The trip is also happening as Trump faces a backlash over his administration’s policy of separating children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the border with Mexico.

Besides four competitive House races and a governor’s race, both of the state’s incumbent U.S. senators are facing re-election this year. Some of the Democratic candidates are trying to use Trump’s visit to rally their supporters.

“No more ‘Minnesota nice,’” tweeted Richard Painter, who served as an ethics lawyer in President George W. Bush’s administration and is now challenging Senator Tina Smith in a Democratic primary. “On Wednesday, thousands of middle fingers will await him in Duluth.”

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