DULUTH-Wednesday, June 20, at 6:30 p.m. in Duluth, President Donald Trump will conduct one of his patented campaign rallies. He has used the events throughout his presidency to excite fans and supporters and fuel his own tank with positivity.
The spark that added Amsoil Arena to the back of the Trump campaign T-shirt came during a March phone call he made to Pete Stauber.
"He called my cell phone and I couldn't believe it," said Stauber, the GOP-endorsed candidate in the race to represent Minnesota's 8th Congressional District. At the time of the call, Stauber had burnished his party bonafides by raising half a million dollars in eight months of early midterm campaigning.
"(Trump) said, 'Pete, I'd like to help in any way,' " Stauber recalled. "And I said, 'Mr. President, why don't you come to the 8th District so I can show you the treasure that it is?' He said he'd think about it."
The visit now near fruition, it comes during a time of national controversy over immigration enforcement practices at the border between the United States and Mexico, where children by the hundreds have been separated from parents and sheltered by the federal government per Trump administration policy. The children are taken into protective custody after parents have been detained related to illegal entry or held even for seeking asylum, according to multiple national news reports.
Michelle Lee and Joe Radinovich, two of five Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidates running in the 8th District, raised the controversy Tuesday morning in advance of Trump's visit. Radinovich was first to condemn the practice as "a cruel and deliberate political ploy" leveraged against topics such as building the president's long talked-about Southern U.S. border wall.
"This issue is clear to me, and I am imploring President Trump to end this voluntary practice immediately," Radinovich said in a news release. "Pete Stauber should do the same."
"The time to stand up is now," Lee said in a written statement. By midday, outgoing 8th District Rep. Rick Nolan, DFL-Crosby, had announced his cosigning of legislation which would end the separation practice and speed family reunification.
Meanwhile, Stauber measured his comments about the separation policy during an interview in the lead-up to Trump's campaign appearance.
"That's working its way through Congress," Stauber said. "There's going to be great discussion about what should be done that's fair and reasonable. The outcome will be positive. President Obama pushed this down the road. President Trump and Congress are now going to deal with it, and need to deal with it in a bipartisan and compassionate way."
Stauber later told WDIO-TV in Duluth that the separation practice was "absolutely heartbreaking."
Even for a president prone to going off script, it seemed unlikely Trump would expand his thoughts to address the child-separation controversy during his speech in Duluth. His campaign events have generally adhered to his platform. He's used his own Twitter feed or lawyers and administration figures on national television to carry his water on hot topics such as the ongoing Russia investigation.
Instead, Trump was forecast by his campaign last week to give a speech in Duluth about his foreign trade deals, the recent nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Trump tax cuts, jobs and the economy. No doubt, Trump will strike familiar notes which excite his supporters, so observers can likely expect references to fake news and national anthem protests. Stauber also said it was "highly likely" he would be speaking in advance of the president at today's event.
While Duluth is its most-populated and liberal city, Minnesota's 8th District is largely rural and Trump carried it by a whopping 16 points over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Last week, the president's campaign figuratively nudged Duluth liberals in the ribs by making a show of switching his rally to a larger venue so "more Minnesotans" could attend.
"Trump's visit tells you everything about his optimism about winning the 8th, but its actual impact is unclear at this point," said Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. "He may well charge up Republicans in the district, but he may also stir the flames of Democrats who are clearly not happy with his presidency."
Yes, the DFLers see the Trump visit as their own opportunity. They're conducting a simultaneous march and rally in downtown Duluth to counteract the president's appearance. DFL-endorsed candidate for governor Erin Murphy will give a keynote address at the party rally in Lake Place Park. The DFL will also register voters and canvass crowds in an effort to connect would-be supporters to candidates all the way down to local state senate districts, said Emily Nygren, chair of the 8th District DFL.
"It's more than one emotion of negativity for one person," Nygren said of the party's reaction to Trump's visit. "There's a lot of positivity. It's a resistance. It's more than just a survival resistance. It's about rallying together."
The Trump visit also comes on the heels of a campaign maneuver locally by the Republican National Committee last weekend. On Saturday, the RNC moved into an office at Stauber campaign headquarters in Hermantown. It came as part of $200 million nationwide dedicated to fortifying the GOP ground game, said RNC talking points.
It was a noteworthy move because after Republicans lost the 8th District seat to Nolan a third straight time in 2016, GOP candidate Stewart Mills was critical of the national party. He partly blamed his narrow loss on a lack of national party support at crunch time.
This week, Mills declined an offer to analyze what a Trump visit means for the 8th District. But one doesn't need punditry to see that a lack of national support won't be the case again in 2018 - not when the 8th District race is squarely in Trump's focus.
"The RNC hasn't played in Minnesota in almost a decade," said Preya Samsundar, an RNC spokesperson who was in Hermantown on Saturday. "It's been seen as this traditionally safe place for Democrats and we've kept it at arm's length. But Minnesota has a plethora of opportunities for Republicans this cycle."