No one knows what's next for the Minnesota Republican Party — not even Republicans.
Conservatives in the state and across the country were still grappling Thursday with the images they saw of an attempted insurrection and takeover of the U.S. Capitol, stoked by their sitting president.
"It's fair to say the Republican elevator has arrived in the basement," said former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the last Republican to win statewide office in Minnesota. "The party will now predictably debate whether an improved version of Trump populism, an updated version of Reagan conservatism, better outreach or more celebrity candidates is the way forward."
Some prominent conservatives are hoping to cleave the party from Donald Trump and the mob who stormed the Capitol on Wednesday. They see it as their best hope to win statewide races in 2022 and beyond.
Others are skeptical about whether that's possible in a state where Trump's near-victory in 2016 left an indelible mark on the Republican base and its leadership. It's part of an identity crisis for a party that has struggled with debt and been shut out of statewide office for more than a decade.
For his part, Pawlenty said Republicans need to better grasp the current electorate. "That means better applying conservative principles to modern challenges, realities and opportunities," he said.
Trump's near-miss in 2016 was the closest any Republican presidential candidate came to winning Minnesota since 1984. And while Trump lost to Joe Biden in Minnesota by 7% of the vote, he turned out even more Republican voters than he did in 2016.
Former Minnesota Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman said Trump's brand of populism resonated with so many voters in Minnesota who thought they weren't being heard.
"As Republicans, I think the challenge is, how do we tell 99.99% of the more than 74 million people that supported the president that we understand their concerns about people not listening to their voice," Coleman said. "But how do you do that without the anger and the vitriol that is generated by the president?"
But Amy Koch, a Republican strategist and former Senate GOP majority leader, said there's no denying or erasing the images of Trump supporters pushing through law enforcement and marching into the U.S. Capitol, some carrying the Confederate flag.
"It's tough, and it hurts. I know a lot of Republicans who are just sick today, on all sides of it, who are sick and not sure what to do," she said. "That comes out of four years or five years of a party that had nothing to do with our principles but was instead all about this person."
The divide among Minnesota Republicans was evident in the split vote from the state's GOP delegation in Congress. Reps. Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber were among a minority of Republicans who sided with Democrats against blocking certification. Both Emmer and Stauber said they still believe fraud allegations should be investigated but that Congress lacks the authority to block state electoral votes.
Rep. Jim Hagedorn and newly elected Rep. Michelle Fischbach sided with colleagues who unsuccessfully moved to object to the Electoral College vote and deny Biden's win based on unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud. They denied requests for comment on their votes.
In Minnesota, at least a half-dozen House members participated in a pro-Trump rally outside the State Capitol on Wednesday that coincided with the breaching of the U.S. Capitol building. Rallygoers cheered as the emcee, a local GOP party chair, delivered news of the breach with a laugh.
Reps. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, and Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, singled out a Ramsey County judge who approved a change to absentee ballot rules before the election — and Lucero suggested impeaching the judge. Others painted a bleak picture of the future if some form of action was not taken.
"Remember, this is a cultural war on which direction our country is going to go, and the future of your children and your grandchildren and even yourselves is at stake," said Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe.
Mike Lindell, the MyPillow founder who said he is "90%" likely to run for governor in Minnesota in 2022, spoke at pro-Trump demonstrations in Washington on Wednesday. He had a front-row seat as Trump encouraged rallygoers to march to the Capitol.
Lindell's national profile and interest in challenging Walz will be one of the state party's biggest tests. Lindell is still funding efforts to prove fraud swung the presidential election and says he does not accept Biden's victory. On Wednesday, he suggested antifa bore responsibility for Wednesday's breach of the U.S. Capitol, citing reports that have since been retracted or debunked as misinformation.
"This is sick that they're trying to blame Donald Trump; it's absolutely insane," Lindell said.
Lindell has shared other demonstrably false information on social media. On Twitter, he shared a link to an article published on 8kun — a platform that has been linked to conspiracy theorist groups like QAnon — that theorized that the Christmas Day bombing in Nashville may have been carried out to destroy evidence of election fraud.
Lindell said the article was "probably one on the fringes but they were so spot on they were saying if you don't change this election thing, where do you end up?"
Lindell believes he maintains Republican support in the state, even after Trump's loss and the breach of the Capitol. But he said his decision will not be decided by party operators.
"If I'm in there it is going to be to help the people of the state of Minnesota if I go for governor; it's not to help the party," he said.
Other prominent Minnesota conservatives said reaching across the aisle and showing the Republican Party can work with Democrats is the right approach in this moment.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, also a potential 2022 gubernatorial contender, cited the police accountability package legislators passed this summer after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis officer. More recently, he said lawmakers have come together on COVID-19 relief for businesses and workers.
"Anytime you lose an election on the national level you have to refocus and decide what you need to do better to reconnect to the people. We will be doing that," Gazelka said. "The country is divided, and … we need to figure out how to come together."
Staff writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report.