Less than a year and a half ago, Jennifer Carnahan was a boutique owner whose involvement in politics was limited to the occasional debate with friends and voting on Election Day.
Today, still arguably a political novice, Carnahan is settling in as chairwoman of the Republican Party of Minnesota. A long-shot candidate for that post earlier this year, Carnahan surprised political insiders when she beat several party veterans despite having just one bit of political experience on her résumé: a losing bid for state Senate in 2016.
Now she’s learning the ropes of building a state political party, meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House and trying to lead Minnesota Republicans out of years of financial struggles and a losing streak in statewide races that stretches back more than a decade.
Carnahan, who is Asian-American and has a corporate background, said she’s well-positioned to help shift the way Minnesota voters think about Republicans.
“When you have a chair like myself who is new to politics, a former business executive turned small business owner who is out being able to champion our values and our brand, it does start to change perceptions,” Carnahan said. “Or maybe open people’s minds a little more.”
Though she had little previous experience in politics, Carnahan, 40, said she’s always been a Republican. She sees the ideals of her party — independence, economic self-reliance — in her own story.
Adopted from South Korea at 6 months old, Carnahan grew up in Maple Grove and earned a degree in broadcast journalism from Syracuse University. She considered getting into TV news but instead went into marketing and corporate strategy. Carnahan worked for professional sports teams, then at companies like McDonalds, General Mills and Ecolab.
In 2013, Carnahan quit her corporate job to launch her own women’s clothing boutique in northeast Minneapolis. She later closed that shop and opened a boutique in the Brainerd-area town of Nisswa, which she still operates.
Carnahan said striking out on her own strengthened her political convictions. For the first time, she wanted to do more than just vote. “That just really made me more passionate about how I want to make sure everybody is set up to succeed in life,” she said.
In spring 2016, Carnahan showed up early for her first organized Republican gathering — a caucus meeting in downtown Minneapolis’ Mill District. When few people stuck around to volunteer as delegates to the upcoming state convention, Carnahan raised her hand. She quickly attracted the attention of party organizers, who soon approached her with an unexpected idea: how would she like to run for the state Senate?
She had virtually no chance of winning — the incumbent, DFLer Bobby Joe Champion, had repeatedly earned more than 80 percent of the vote — but Carnahan agreed and mounted a full-fledged campaign. She did lose, but managed to chip a little further into Champion’s past winning margins. Soon after that, she set her sights on the top leadership post in the state party.
Few Minnesota Republicans had even heard of her. Most thought she had no chance up against the other candidates: Deputy Chairman Chris Fields, former Senate Minority Leader David Hann and GOP National Committeeman Rick Rice.
“She was brand-new and I thought it was highly unlikely that someone of her background would be elected,” said Ron Carey, a former party chairman.
With help from Gregg Peppin — a longtime GOP operative and husband of House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers — Carnahan appealed to Republican delegates with a message about being an outsider who could reshape the party. Her inexperience freed her of the interparty rivalries that dogged the campaigns of Fields and Hann, who had been seen as the likeliest winners.
“For me it was: We need to go in a different direction as a party,” Peppin said. “This is a person who is a fresh face, has fresh ideas, experience, business experience.”
First major test
Though many in the party applauded her improbable win, Carnahan faces an uphill battle. She inherited a party in debt to the tune of about $1 million. No Republican has won a statewide race in Minnesota since 2006, when Gov. Tim Pawlenty was re-elected.
In May, on her first day on the job, Carnahan had her first major test: dealing with a wave of unwanted attention over a post on the Facebook page of Minnesota’s Seventh Congressional District Republican Party. Someone from party leadership posted an image of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., that included a racist and derogatory message.
Carnahan reacted quickly. She called for the resignation of the person who had posted the image, issued an apology to Ellison and released a statement that said in part that the state Republican Party has a “zero tolerance policy for hate speech.”
Over the next few days, Carnahan said she received some vitriolic messages, including one with racial slurs. She said she’s proud of how she handled the incident, including her refusal to identify the person who posted the original message. The individual made an “honest mistake,” she said.
Carnahan knows that internal divisions over other issues remain a major challenge for anyone trying to build a political movement. She wants a party that focuses on issues like economic growth and health care, rather than divisive social issues like abortion or same-sex marriage.
“You’re not going to change people on those issues,” she said. “People feel how they feel.”
Carnahan said she does not support legal abortion. She said she views legal same-sex marriage as a settled issue, and does not believe Republicans should try to overturn it.
Carnahan believes Republicans shouldn’t try to convert opponents of President Donald Trump. She said Trump seems to be holding Republicans who voted for him last year, so the key for 2018 will be keeping independent voters who backed Trump in 2016. Democrat Hillary Clinton won Minnesota last year, but by less than 2 percentage points.
(Carnahan, who recently met Trump at a meeting of state party chairs, said she’s also a big backer of the president, who she said is “not scared to make change.”)
Trump’s business background and outsider status mirrors her own entry into politics, Carnahan said. Still, she raised a few eyebrows last week by acknowledging she is in a romantic relationship with Jim Hagedorn, a Republican candidate for Congress in southern Minnesota.
“To me there’s nothing there, there’s nothing to make about it,” Carnahan said, declining to comment further on the relationship.
Some longtime party members said Carnahan deserves a chance to make her mark. They’re interested to see how she supports candidates and works to stabilize the party’s finances.
No matter how hard she works or how many people she wins over, Carnahan is also likely to find herself running into political headwinds beyond her control. Trump’s frequent controversies, Congress’ progress — or lack thereof — on passing major bills, and other factors will be at play for Republicans next November.
“If she is not successful in 2018, I’m not going to just point the finger at her,” said Jake Duesenberg, a former Tea Party activist and president of a group called Action 4 Liberty. “She may be swimming up a creek against a current.”