Jennifer Carnahan, a candidate for chair of the Minnesota Republican Party, is convinced that even in the state’s bluest political pockets there are voters who can be persuaded to vote Republican.
Carnahan has tried to live that claim. She ran as a Republican candidate for the Minnesota Senate in District 59, the core of Minneapolis, and won 22 percent of the vote, the highest percentage any Republican has won in recent history. “I looked at 21 years of data in terms of wards and precincts,” she said. “My goal was where to get gains for the party.”
She found those gains in the downtown precincts where voters liked her message of less government, more opportunity, and a notable lack of fixation on social issues. “I think that’s where the party has do things differently,” she said. “We need to pick up gains, not necessarily win the seat. We start winning statewide races this way.”
Carnahan’s approach may seem radically different from the party’s past election strategies, which have focused on legislative victories, particularly in Greater Minnesota.
These strategies should not be abandoned, Carnahan believes, but they need to be augmented. For that, Carnahan, a Carlson MBA and a veteran of General Mills and Ecolab, calls on her marketing background.
“If I did get elected, I would do focus groups and see how voters live their lives, find out what’s important to them,” she said. “Saying continuously we’re going to cut taxes or that health care is a disaster — we need to say this on a level that connects to people and that is where the party falls short.”
Carnahan throws another firecracker into the mix with a proposal that rings of identity politics. “This is going to rock the boat in the party, but we need to start championing things like inclusiveness and different groups. Republicans have not wanted to go down that route,” said Carnahan, who was adopted from South Korea. “You can talk about the fact that I’m Asian and female, why not? If were elected chair, just that alone would send a powerful message – an adopted South Korean female.”
Carnahan’s website reflects her background with a detailed plan of how she would manage the party — from fundraising to brand building to internal operations.
On all those fronts, she has formidable competition. Deputy Party Chair Chris Fields, national committeeman Rick Rice and former Senate Minority Leader David Hann are also running for chair. The party’s state central committee, a group of 350 activists, will decide in April who replaces current Chair Keith Downey.
Carnahan welcomes the competition — and the comparisons. “I am who I am and I shouldn’t have to be ashamed. But don’t elect me because of what I look like and what gender I am. Elect me because I have a strong professional background.”
Still, she stresses that her distinctiveness is just what the party needs. “I don’t feel it’s a one-size-fits-all approach,” she said. “What resonates with voters in different parts of Minnesota may be different even though we have the same set of values.”
She believes the party needs to have an evolution both in its message and the messengers themselves, including candidates.
“We can’t keep putting up the same white 60-year-old guy to speak about our values,” she said. “If they say that’s identity politics then that’s too bad.”