Minnesota Republican party leader Jennifer Carnahan was forced to resign from her position on August 19th after subordinates alleged she created a toxic workplace and ignored cases of sexual misconduct. Carnahan’s resignation is the latest episode in an evolving scandal within the Minnesota GOP that leaves the party “morally bankrupt.” This crisis tarnishes the state party’s brand and foments discord when the party. The timing is particularly bad for the party since it should be uniting to fight upcoming redistricting battles and the 2022 elections.
Carnahan was a little-known small-business manager when she lost her first election in an overwhelmingly Democratic Minneapolis State Senate race in 2016. She however came from behind to defeat two better-known Republicans for the position of party chair in 2017, becoming the first person of color as a Korean American to lead the Minnesota GOP. Carnahan argued that the GOP needed someone who could counter Democratic practices of identity politics if the state party was to win in 2018.
Despite Carnahan’s promise during the party leadership campaign, her tenure saw the Minnesota GOP find greater success outside of the comparatively diverse Twin Cities. Republicans in 2018 lost control of the Minnesota House of Representatives to the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor party (DFL, or state Democrats in Minnesota) through a series of losses in the Twin City suburbs. The GOP defied expectations and maintained control of the State Senate in 2020 through gains in rural areas that counteracted DFL suburban flips. During these four years Republicans gained three Congressional seats outside of the Twin Cities and lost two in their suburbs. Two of these flips were the only Congressional GOP gains in 2018 not guaranteed to be pickups because of mid-decade Pennsylvania redistricting. Carnahan married one of the new congressmen, Jim Hagedorn of the First District, after his victory in 2018.
Carnahan continued the work of her predecessor, Keith Downey, to reduce longstanding multimillion-dollar party debts to manageable levels. Carnahan solicited help in this project from her wealthy friend, Anton “Tony” Lazzaro, which gave Lazarro entry into Minnesota Republican politics. Examples of their friendship included Lazzaro supporting Carhanan’s bid for the position of party chair, Lazaro attending Carnahan and Hagedorn’s private wedding, and the two hosting a joint podcast. Lazzaro never attained an official position within the party, but enjoyed significant access through his friendship.
An Expanding Crisis
In late December 2020 the FBI raided Lazzaro’s Minneapolis home seizing money in multiple currencies and bars of precious metals. The online marketing companies Lazzaro publicly claimed to chair existed only on paper. Instead, the playboy engaged in currency speculation with the fortune he inherited from his father. Phones and computers were seized to further the investigation.
Eight months later, federal prosecutors arrested and charged Lazzaro with six counts of human trafficking. Prosecutors also arrested the 19-year-old chairwoman of the University of St. Thomas College Republicans, Gisela Castro Medina, for assisting Lazzaro in recruiting and trafficking underage women between May and December 2020. Further details have yet to be made public.
Carnahan’s rivals in the Minnesota Republican party used Lazzaro’s arrest to launch their offense against her, arguing that she knowingly suppressed the allegations against her friend. Others who worked under Carnahan saw their opening and voiced long-held grievances with her leadership. Nearly 20 Minnesota Republican legislators called for her to quit.
Multiple women came forward on social media detailing experiences of abuse or inappropriate behavior within the party. They alleged Carnahan stifled their complaints and created a culture that stifled any accusations. Party staffers accused Carnahan of mixing her personal life with her job, calling party workers late at night, and sending sensitive personal information through party channels. Organizers accused her of withholding party data from some candidates to help others who she favored. Four former executive directors of the party released a statement saying Carnahan “ruled by grudges, retaliation, and intimidation” and created a toxic workplace. They brought forward evidence of frequent outbursts, demands for loyalty, and forced non-disclosure agreements.
Carnahan defended herself at Thursday’s meeting, arguing that she had no knowledge of Lazzaro’s predatory activities and charged her accusers of defamation and “mob mentality.” The state Party board rejected Carnahan’s arguments and fired their chair. They then voted 8-7 to give Carnahan $38K severance to leave the job with Carnahan, herself, casting the deciding vote. Her attorney stated that Carnahan had no knowledge of any abuse inside the party and expects to file defamation suits against her accusers.
The Open Wound
Carnahan won re-election as party chair earlier in April with 67% of Party convention voters. Party opinion on the former chair nosedived since this vote, but the election demonstrates that Carnahan still has allies within the party. The ongoing feud hampers Minnesota Republican efforts to move past this crisis and present a viable alternative to the DFL in 2022.
Republicans have not won a Minnesota statewide contest in 15 years and DFL Governor Tim Walz is popular. A strong DFL incumbent and a weak GOP discourages experienced Republican candidates from running statewide. It discourages donors from spending money on races that appear likely to be lost.
The intra-party fight instead opens the door for candidates outside of the statewide GOP apparatus, such as MyPillow CEO and 2020 election conspiracist Mike Lindell, to enter the race and run in opposition to both contaminated party insiders and the DFL. Despite her many issues, Carnahan knew that the GOP needed votes inside the Democratic Twin Cities and its growing suburbs to win statewide. A GOP brand tainted by association to a sexual predator and a conspiracist gubernatorial nominee obstructs this goal.
Ben Lefkowitz (@OryxMaps) is a Contributor to Decision Desk HQ.