The race to lead the Minnesota Republican Party has grown contentious as the current chairwoman labels her opponent "a man of no integrity" while he accuses her of using the party job to bolster her own re-election.
State Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan is running for a third two-year term. Her opponent is state Sen. Mark Koran of North Branch. The decision rests with about 340 Republican activists from around the state who will vote early next month in a virtual meeting.
The winner will lead the Minnesota Republican Party for the next two years — raising money, recruiting candidates and volunteers, hiring staff and engaging volunteers in the run-up to next year's statewide elections. With the governor's office and the full Legislature on the ballot, Republicans hope to break a long statewide losing streak in Minnesota even as they contend with fallout from former President Donald Trump's loss.
"People are furious we lost the presidency," said Sharon Peterson, a longtime GOP activist from Rosemount who's backing Carnahan. She said many in the party's volunteer ranks are consumed with worry about the fairness of the next election, having believed Trump's unproven and legally discredited claims of a rigged election.
Allegations of a manipulated voting process have infiltrated the chair's race. Koran and some of his supporters are upset that state party staffers, and Carnahan herself, directly managed about half of the local conventions where activists elected the delegates and alternates who will make up the voting pool for next month's chair election.
"It's a massive conflict of interest," Koran said. "Free, fair, open and transparent elections have to be the basic foundation of what we do. If you have distrust in the process, it's difficult to get people to accept the results of those conventions."
Carnahan said she and state party staffers helped run the virtual conventions only in cases where local party units requested it. Many chose to, she said, because the party acquired software and developed a process for virtual conventions last year in response to the pandemic.
In all, Carnahan said, 60 of the 121 Basic Political Operating Units, or BPOUs, asked the party to run their convention.
"There was no impropriety," she said, adding that "doing my job is not a conflict of interest. … The real conflict of interest here is him trying to serve in the state Legislature and trying to run the party at the same time."
Peterson said she asked the state party to help run her BPOU's convention in early February because she wanted their expertise in executing a meeting over Zoom with many participants, that included actual voting.
"Jennifer led it for me," Peterson said. "They did it all for us, and I'm grateful. The process is a headache when you have 150 people logging on."
The delegates and alternates elected were a mix of Carnahan and Koran supporters, Peterson said.
"The best thing would have been to pull the party out of this and let the individual districts hire somebody, to alleviate accusations of a party and the current chair rigging the election," said Nathan Raddatz, a St. Paul activist who's supporting Koran. His BPOU met in person and managed their own voting process, he said.
Joe Witthuhn is a party activist from Eagan who helped run several virtual BPOU conventions this year. He's supporting Carnahan and said he's seen zero evidence of a fixed race.
"If I thought she rigged even one individual vote, I would not support her anymore," Witthuhn said.
A spokesman for Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party said its leaders and staffers deliberately opted not to help administer the local BPOU conventions that elected their delegates and alternates for party leadership elections. Longtime DFL Chairman Ken Martin was reelected in February with no opposition.
Political parties are private organizations that set their own rules and policies and operate largely on private donations. Carnahan was first elected party chairwoman in 2017, a political newcomer who unexpectedly defeated two more established rivals; she was reelected in 2019.
Trump failed to carry Minnesota last year despite his campaign's large investment in the state. But the GOP flipped a congressional seat in its favor, held its state Senate majority and gained House seats. Carnahan has said a main focus in the next two years would be efforts to rebuild the GOP's appeal in the Twin Cities suburbs.
"It's not a part-time job," Carnahan said. "If we want to beat the Democrats in 2022, we need someone who can give the time it needs to build, advance and grow this party."
Koran was elected to the state Senate in 2016, representing Chisago and Isanti counties. To his opponent's criticism that he shouldn't serve in the Legislature and run the party, Koran said the dual role would be an asset.
"It's important to have somebody who's come through the entire process, all the way from being an activist to a legislator," Koran said. He has used "Leadership Without Drama" as a campaign slogan, seen by many as a rebuke of Carnahan, who has been known to air personal conflicts on social media.
In late February, Carnahan and Koran both appeared at an in-person GOP gathering in Wright County. Carnahan, who is Asian American, recalled facing discrimination growing up in Minnesota. She became emotional, she said, and shed tears during her speech.
Several days later, Carnahan e-mailed party activists to allege that Koran "went to one of the online bully twitter trolls" — referring to Jeff Kolb, a one-time party activist and former Crystal City Council member. Kolb posted the night of the Wright County gathering that he heard Carnahan had a "breakdown" during her speech.
"I understand that politics is ugly, but Senator Koran has crossed a conduct and human decency line this week," Carnahan wrote in the e-mail. "His conduct is so far in the gutter, I'm now more worried about the lasting impact to our public image."
Koran and Kolb separately denied they were in touch about Carnahan's speech. Both said they don't know each other.
"She's impugned me, and it's flat-out inaccurate," Koran said.
Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413