In the midst of an identity crisis for Minnesota Republicans, two candidates running to lead the party say they want to get back to the basics.
Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan confirmed last week that she will seek a third term, joining state Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch, in a race that will determine the future of a party still grappling with the fallout of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Even before a violent mob incited by President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol, Republicans were combing through the results of the 2020 election in Minnesota, which saw Trump get even more votes than he did in 2016 but still lose the election by 7 percentage points to Democrat Joe Biden.
Republicans haven't won a statewide race in Minnesota since 2006, when former Gov. Tim Pawlenty won a second term. But even Pawlenty didn't get more than 50% of the vote in his two races for governor. You'd have to go as far back as former Gov. Arne Carlson, who hit that threshold when he ran in 1990 and 1994. Carlson ran as an Independent Republican before the party officially changed its name.
To fix that, both candidates say the party needs to give a boost to local party activists to increase GOP turnout in their communities.
Specifically, Carnahan said she'd put more focus on grassroots activists' work in the suburbs and the metro, where Republicans have struggled to gain enough traction to win statewide.
"To be able to win we have to be able to get those swing and independent voters specifically in those areas," she said. "We aren't going to be able to do that unless our local party units are doing all they can do and firing on all cylinders."
Carnahan said the GOP's 2020 voter program was the largest the party had ever built in the state. But it needs to immediately start boosting local party units in congressional and legislative districts.
"We had great coverage in rural Minnesota, but I would like to complement that program in the suburbs and the metro area and I want to do that now," she said. "I don't want to wait until later in 2021 or 2022."
In announcing his candidacy for the GOP post, Koran, a two-term state senator, said the local Republican activists are the "heart of our party." He said he wants to see more support for those political units under the party's umbrella.
But he also wants to see more work done to win not just federal and state offices, but races for school board, township, city and county offices that don't always have strong conservative representation.
"It's the resource we have not put focus on as the MNGOP," said Koran. "Our local offices are as impactful to our quality of life and the entire political landscape."
Whoever wins the party leadership race in April will have to immediately focus on 2022, when the governor's office will be on the ballot, along with all 201 legislative seats. DFL Gov. Tim Walz is expected to run for a second term, but no front runner has emerged on the GOP side.