ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Both political parties see opportunity in President Barack Obama’s two-day visit to Minnesota that starts Thursday.
For Democrats, their party’s biggest name will draw attention to a signature initiative: the large, upcoming bump in the state’s minimum wage. For Republicans, his presence alone will give them a tangible way to connect targeted Democratic candidates to a struggling president as campaign season intensifies.
Aside from a high-dollar fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Obama’s trip is comprised more of official business than overtly political events: a town hall meeting near the roaring Minnehaha Falls on Thursday and an economic policy speech delivered from the picturesque Lake Harriet Bandshell on Friday. He’ll also spend time Thursday with a Minneapolis woman who wrote him a letter about financial hardships she’s encountered, the first in what the White House is describing as “day-in-the-life” visits.
But presidential appearances inevitably take on strong political overtones, particularly in a year when Minnesota Republicans are intent on breaking a Democratic hold on all statewide offices and legislative control. They’re most eager to defeat Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken, both of whom narrowly won their respective offices.
Obama handily won Minnesota twice, finishing with nearly 53 percent of the vote in 2012. As has happened elsewhere, his approval ratings in Minnesota have sagged more recently.
“I don’t think it hurts you to stand with the president. In fact, I think in the end it helps you. Look, his numbers did take a dip here, but they’re not toxic,” Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chairman Ken Martin said. “In other parts of the country, you see Democrats holding the president at arm’s length. That’s not the case here in Minnesota.”
Martin said Obama’s planned focus on raising the minimum wage and reducing income disparities will draw more awareness to issues that are the centerpiece of Democrats’ fall campaign message. Minnesota lawmakers recently passed legislation pushing the state’s minimum wage from $6.15 per hour to $9.50 by 2016, and adopted more workplace protections for women.
But the president’s appearance is also a chance to remind voters that Franken has backed most of Obama’s agenda, Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey said. Franken is expected to face a vigorous re-election challenge, with businessman Mike McFadden the favorite to win the GOP nod in August.
“Al Franken’s future is tied to Barack Obama’s poll numbers and popularity at the time of the election,” Downey said.
Franken campaign spokeswoman Alexandra Fetissoff said it wasn’t clear how much of the Obama trip the senator will participate in.
“Senator Franken is always happy to have the President visit Minnesota, and hopes the Senate vote schedule allows him to join the president when he’s in town this week,” Fetissoff said.
Dayton’s GOP challengers say Minnesota’s hearty embrace of the federal health care law give them fodder for criticism, too. Minnesota created its own online health insurance marketplace, which despite stumbling through its first year, has still connected more than 180,000 people with insurance policies.
“There’s a great opportunity here for us to package together an unpopular trifecta,” said Republican gubernatorial hopeful Marty Seifert, lumping Dayton in with Franken and Obama.
The governor isn’t shying from Obama, and said he looks forward to using the face time to make the case for speedy federal assistance for areas affected by recent severe flooding. Obama’s flight path upon arrival is likely to take him along a Mississippi River that is bulging after last week’s sustained rains.
“The fact he’s seen it firsthand will make him well aware of the urgency of the situation,” Dayton said.
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