Grumpy old men: The presidential race comes to Minnesota on the final weekend

By: and - October 30, 2020 9:06 pm

Former Vice President Joe Biden spoke during a drive-in campaign event in Falcon Heights. Pool photo by Leila Navidi/Star Tribune.

ROCHESTER AND FALCON HEIGHTS — On the final weekend of what has seemed like the longest campaign in American history, the two men hoping to be president were relatively brief and a bit ornery during dueling stops in Minnesota Friday. 

President Donald Trump’s Rochester airport rally was unlike his previous stops in Minnesota. 

Instead of a crowd of thousands, Minnesota officials limited the event to 250 invited guests after Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison asked the Trump campaign to abide by COVID-19 guidelines.  

Trump attacked Walz for limiting the size of the rally during rope line remarks before his speech. 

“There are thousands of people over there,” he said, referring to crowds that came but were not let into the rally. “All because the governor wants to play games. He’s a weak governor. He’s done a terrible job. He doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.” 

Asked for a response, Teddy Tschann, a spokesman for Walz, said the governor “thanks President Trump for finally following public health guidance at a campaign rally,” a subtle dig at the outbreaks that have occurred after Trump rallies in Bemidji and Duluth. The latter was the fateful final rally before Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19. 

The Trump visit came amid more grim pandemic news, both here and around the country. 

Minnesota on Friday reported a new single-day high of 3,165 confirmed COVID-19 infections, as well as 18 deaths. More than 700 Minnesota hospital beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients. 

While Trump bemoaned the restrictions, the Biden operation at the State Fair had no problem with crowd control, continuing its practice of pandemic risk-averse campaigning. 

Biden 2020 rallies are the antithesis of typical campaign rallies: The general public and press get very little advance notice, and in fact, aren’t invited.

Trump’s passionate supporters managed to show up and walked along the road ringing the Biden rally parking lot with flags, horns and signs.

Biden seemed distracted by their presence. 

He mentioned the raucous uninvited guests several times during his speech, at one point getting flustered and stumbling over his words, as he said of the red hats, “These guys are not very polite but they’re like Trump. They’re gonna be OK; we’re gonna take care of them as well.”

Trump was not his usual self — he often feeds off the energy of a big crowd, and without it Friday, he was subdued. He joylessly walked through his prepared remarks in a 22 minute speech that lacked his trademark freewheeling riffs that can make his speeches both entertaining or appalling — depending on your politics — and usually at least twice as long. 

President Donald Trump groused about the size of his crowd in Rochester, which was limited at the request of state officials. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

He found a local angle, however, in Ellison, a favorite target of Minnesota conservatives. Trump charged that Biden and Ellison “want to imprison you in your home while letting anarchists, agitators and vandals roam free as they destroy your cities and states.” 

(An Ellison spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

In a bit of dramatic irony, at nearly the same time Trump was castigating Biden for encouraging violence, Biden was condemning it: “Burning and looting is not protesting; it’s violence pure and simple and will not be tolerated. But these protests are a cry for justice,” Biden said, speaking about seven miles from the site of George Floyd’s death.

Still, Trump kept up the attacks on Biden, grouping him with far left Democrats, even though they bitterly opposed Biden in the Democratic primary — and many still do today: “The radical left is determined to obliterate the middle class. They think they can take your money, attack your values, indoctrinate your children and silence your voices,” he said. 

Biden took his own shots at Trump, echoing attacks he’s made for months, including in the recent presidential debates. He accused Trump of failing to control the coronavirus and squandering the strong economy he inherited from the Obama-Biden administration.

If people would wear masks, 100,000 lives could be saved, he said.

“Dr. (Anthony) Fauci called for a mask mandate last week. This isn’t a political statement like those ugly folks over there beeping the horns. This is a patriotic duty for God’s sake,” he said.

Despite his shots at Trump and his local supporters, Biden called for unity: “We need a president who’ll bring us together, not pull us apart,” he said.

Trump fans who didn’t get into the smallish Rochester event weren’t the only disappointed political activists Friday. 

Hours before Biden was scheduled to speak, Margaret Barrett and a friend stood on a road about a half mile from the stage, wishing they could go and wondering if they should come back with binoculars.

They didn’t understand why the general public wasn’t allowed to attend the event.

Told the event was invitation-only and limited to 250 cars, Barrett, a Biden supporter, was disappointed.

“I wish that they would’ve put a word out sooner and that anybody could get to come, not just a select few. And are those select few already his followers? I would think he would want people on the fence to come in and hear him and hopefully vote for him,” she said. 

Rebecca Carlson and Wendy Bock of Albert Lea called all over trying to figure out where Biden would be. They parked in a university parking lot about a half mile from the stage, saying it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Biden, for whom they’ve written letters, texted and sent postcards of support.

“He’s all about equality; he wants everyone to be equal,” Bock said, as a group of Trump supporters came walking down the road toward them.

The final days of the campaign in Minnesota have turned into a get-out-the-vote effort like never before. A last-minute court ruling on Thursday evening has imperiled a previous judicial order that allowed mail-in ballots to be received by Nov. 10 as long as they were postmarked by Election Day. 

The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the state-court approved agreement between Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon and a group of voters to expand mail-ballot access — to allow for safer voting options amid the pandemic — likely violated the U.S. Constitution.

The court ordered that late-arriving ballots be separated and hinted they would likely be invalidated later. 

Both GOP and Democratic-Farmer-Labor party officials and volunteers are urging voters to hand deliver their ballots or vote in person to ensure their votes are counted. 

Despite polls showing Trump trailing Biden in key states, including Minnesota, GOP chair Jennifer Carnahan said she remains optimistic Trump would be able to repeat a surprise come-from-behind victory, largely because of the Republicans’ expanded ground game in Minnesota.

“The amount of work that’s gone into campaigning all across the state, the direct voter contact, knocking on those doors, making more than 5 million direct voter contacts as an organization, that’s something we’ve never accomplished before on our side,” she said. 

Lillie Nielsen, a 20-year-old Winona State University college student tapped to sing the National Anthem, will add one to the Trump column from 2016, when she was too young to vote. 

“I was just really excited to actually come here and be involved in it,” Nielsen said. “I feel like it’s really important to actually go to see who you’re voting for.”

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez was a senior political reporter for the Reformer.

Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.