Less than a year ago, Minnesota looked every bit a swing state. Donald Trump was pouring millions of dollars into his campaign there, after nearly flipping the state in 2016, Republicans were making inroads in the ancestrally Democratic Iron Range. In the Twin Cities suburbs, nervous Democrats feared protests following the police murder of George Floyd could turn some voters to the GOP.
That all fell apart with Joe Biden’s victory in November. And nine months later, the resignation of the Minnesota Republican Party’s embattled chair, Jennifer Carnahan, on Thursday night marked a new low for a state party in decline.
The proximate cause of Carnahan’s departure was a firestorm that engulfed the party in recent days, after a GOP donor she was close to, Anton “Tony” Lazzaro, was indicted on federal sex-trafficking charges. A pile-on ensued, with Carnahan, the wife of Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, accused by party officials and former staffers of running a toxic, retaliatory workplace, mismanaging party finances and, through the use of non-disclosure agreements, squashing transparency.
“The party is in ruins,” Michael Brodkorb, a former deputy chair of the Minnesota GOP, said on Friday.
He added, “I don’t know if the party has hit rock bottom yet.”
There are reasons to think the party might not have. Even with Carnahan gone, Republicans are confronting what will likely be a monthslong slog of internal reviews and ongoing headlines about the saga — a drag on the party just over a year ahead of the midterm elections. In addition to the charges against Lazzaro, the chairwoman of the University of St. Thomas College Republicans was arrested on charges she assisted him in trafficking minors for sex, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.
Four former executive directors of the state party have called for an external financial audit.
First term state Sen. Julia Coleman, who was among the first GOP elected officials in the state to call for Carnahan’s ouster, said a big reason she decided to run for office was to get more young people, particularly women, to embrace the Republican Party, but that the current scandal has undermined those efforts.
Republicans in Minnesota were losing ground statewide long before Carnahan was forced out. Trump, who viewed Minnesota as one of his few pick-up opportunities in the November election, lost to Biden by more than 7 percentage points. And though Republicans flipped one rural congressional seat and maintained a majority in the state Senate last fall, they ceded ground in the state’s populous — and growing — suburbs, an ominous sign for the party’s future in a once-promising state.
Minnesota’s Democratic governor, Tim Walz, is expected to easily win reelection next year, while one of the state’s most prominent Republicans is now pillow salesman-turned-conspiracy promoter Mike Lindell.
In the wake of Carnahan’s departure, some Minnesota Republicans see reason for optimism. The party had rid itself of a “terrible chair” who “wielded a hammer and kept power in this state through intimidation and false accusations and all the things people hate about politics,” said Amy Koch, a former Republican state Senate majority leader.
“What happened this week,” she said, “is that a bunch of activists and legislators and former legislators, all those folks stood up and said it’s not OK. It’s not OK. We’re not going to allow this to go forward.”
Carnahan’s “leadership” was always about bullying. I’m not sure how she manages to retain employees.