Where the Minnesota GOP is headed in the age of Trump

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Supporters gathered to rally with then-nominee Donald Trump in a cargo hangar at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Nov. 6, 2016.

The danger of political waves is they often create undertow.

Watergate ultimately turned a Richard Nixon surge in Minnesota into such a brutal backlash that the state Republican Party changed its name. Only a few years later, the hubris of DFL Gov. Wendy Anderson in appointing himself to the U.S. Senate sank Democrats. Only a few years before, he had won re-election by more than 30 points. 

But there’s never been a wave quite like President Donald Trump. And while it’s impossible to know exactly what impact the president will have on the party in 2018 or beyond, we asked three different kinds of Republicans — old school GOPers Chuck Slocum and former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger; current party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan; and current Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka — where they think the Republican Party is headed in age of Trump. 

The old school

There was an obvious reason to seek out the views of Durenberger and Slocum. Once upon a time, they were players amid another big wave. In 1972, Richard Nixon became the last Republican presidential candidate to carry Minnesota, defeating Democrat George McGovern. Nixon’s victory was so complete he even carried Hennepin County.

But by 1974, the Watergate scandal had erupted in full and the Minnesota GOP was in retreat. In the 1974 legislative races, DFLers won 104 seats. The GOP? 30. 

So in 1975, Slocum, then the 28-year-old chairman of the state party, led the move to change the name of the state party from Republican to Independent Republican Party.

Yet changing the party name was only partially an effort to separate the state GOP from Nixon, Slocum said. It was also an attempt to broaden the party base. Slocum said that leading up to the state party’s convention of 1975, surveys were conducted that showed a name would be looked upon favorably by 3 percent of the state’s independents. “In an election, 3 percent is huge,’’ said Slocum.  

Former Sen. David Durenberger
Former Sen. David Durenberger

Today, Slocum sees parallels in people who reluctantly voted for Trump and those who reluctantly voted for Nixon in 1972. “Nixon was never deeply popular in Minnesota,” Slocum said. “He did carry the state. But that was because McGovern was about equal to Hillary.”

For his part, Durenberger believes that a Trump-led party has cut itself off from its old base. He’s been open about the fact that he didn’t vote for Trump, and said most of the Minnesota Republicans he knows of his generation also didn’t vote for the president.

“I think there were two things that led to what we have,” Durenberger said. “There are some people who voted for the Republican because they just couldn’t vote for the Democrat. The way many see it is that the Democrats have just gone too far. And I guess some people see him as an agent for change. I see him more as an accident of time. Once we were a party of ideology. Now it seems the party is personality driven.” 

The party chair

Trump was not Jennifer Carnahan’s first choice to be her party’s presidential nominee. Her favorite candidate was Jeb Bush. When he dropped out of the race, she opted to support Marco Rubio. But she says she’s all in on Trump now. 

Trump didn’t carry Minnesota, of course, but Hillary Clinton won the state by just 1.4 percent. And with Trump at the top of the ticket, Republicans swept rural Minnesota, taking control of the state Senate as well as the House. “The Trump wave brought in activists who are an integral part of the party,” Carnahan said. “I think even my own election [to party chairwoman in April] was part of that wave. I was from the outside, I have a business background and I was a new face.”

Carnahan, who went to Syracuse University with the hope of becoming a sports television anchor like fellow alum Bob Costas, is certainly a new face to party politics. Born in South Korea, she was adopted by a Minnesota couple and worked for two major league baseball teams before deciding that the road to a sports broadcasting career was filled with too many unpredictable curves. She moved into business, working in marketing for such companies as Dayton’s, Ecolab and McDonald’s before opening her own boutique clothing store. 

Jennifer Carnahan
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Jennifer Carnahan

It wasn’t until 2016 that she got involved in politics. Tired of high taxes — “the government taking, taking, taking” — she showed up for her first GOP caucus and ran as a Republican for state Senate against DFLer Bobby Joe Champion. She got hammered by 56 points in her heavily DFL Minneapolis district. But she remains undaunted, insisting that her experience in that race will help the GOP gain urban votes — and that her inexperience in politics is ultimately an asset for the party. “People are tired of all the politicians who talk but don’t say anything,” she said. 

Carnahan doesn’t dispute that many of the new party enthusiasts are driven to the party by the president’s personality. “There’s no question his personality is part of why many support him,” said Carnahan. “Many of his most ardent supporters liked his style when he was a TV celebrity. They liked his style on ‘The Apprentice.’ They know him as the person who owned the Miss Universe pageant and who has been hugely successful in business.”

Her job, she said, is to bridge the gap that exists between those new activists and the more restrained Republicans of another era. “It’s my job to help the gentleman who made his money in business and the Christian conservatives and the new activists see that we’re all probably 90 percent alike in the things we believe,” she said.

The majority leader

Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka believes that it’s the combination of Trump’s style and his substance that explains Trump’s success, especially across large swaths of rural Minnesota. “President Trump’s policies have resonated with people who feel they’ve been forgotten, particularly blue collar, middle class voters,” Gazelka wrote in an e-mail. “They like that President Trump is old enough to express common sense ideas and stand up for the little guy instead of pandering to the political class.”

On the other hand, Trump’s style is the antithesis of Gazelka’s. Gazelka is a deeply religious, conservative man, one who takes pride in being respectful to those who disagree with him. “President Trump’s impulsive tweets do get in the way of his message,” Gazelka wrote. “I hope that by the time the 2018 elections come around, we’ll be talking about his accomplishments.’’ 

Big opportunities, big challenges

Carnahan believes that those inspired by Trump’s style remain not only enthusiastic about the president, and the party, but that “the Trump wave is going to sweep through the elections of 2018.” Indeed, though the biggest goal for the Minnesota GOP in 2018 is the governor’s race, with DFL Rep. Tim Walz announcing he’s running for governor, Carnahan says the 1st Congressional District has also become a prime GOP target. 

And yet, the Republican Party of Minnesota still faces substantial challenges, not the least of which remains the party’s debt. And if Durenberger is correct — that old-school Republicans are dismayed by the man at the top — raising funds may become more complicated. Will the new wave of Republican supporters have the wherewithal or desire to back their enthusiasm for the president with money for the state party?

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka

“Maybe these new people can’t write big checks,” Carnahan said. “But what if they contribute $10 a month. If you get 5,000 of those, it can more than make up the difference.”

Carnahan admits she can’t talk politics with most of her old friends, many of whom are appalled by the president. She likes to call herself “someone in the middle.” But she’s also the head of the state party, and often sounds like a true believer.

When asked about her personal response to the president’s periodic twitter outbursts and the negative media storms they create, she says: “I feel like the liberal media will say what they want to say. I also believe people will believe what they want to believe. His ardent supporters will stay with him no matter what.” 

That may be true — public opinion polls have so far borne that out.

But Durenberger, who has seen waves come and go, suspects most elected Republican officials — at all levels of government — aren’t so ardent when it comes to Trump, and suspects that many are already preparing lifeboat strategies in case the latest wave is followed by an undertow.

As he notes: “Politicians have good survival instincts.” 

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Ralf Wyman on 07/11/2017 - 12:17 pm.

    The Trump wave? Tsunami!

    “The Trump wave is going to sweep through the elections of 2018”
    I think this will be quite true, Ms. Carnahan. But not in the way you believe. The level of flailing incompetence, not to mention today’s jumbo helping of family scandal involving Russian offers of electoral aid, will be a stark reminder to Minnesota voters that we value competent execution of government. This past legislative session the MN GOP felt more like the my way or the (underfunded) highway governance that I surely hope Minnesotans will reject.
    The look back to Nixon-era Republicans at the top of the story may serve as a sort of guidance for what may come.
    Democrats should take care, however. Positive policies and a vision for a truly better Minnesota need to be the warp and weft of the campaign. ‘We’re not Trump’ will not be enough.

  2. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 07/11/2017 - 01:14 pm.

    Minnesota republicans

    This morning’s newspaper carried a story about the mental health crisis/suicide prevention closing for lack of money. I think about $300,000. That’s what MN GOP seems to be doing — just as cruel as the administration because so little money is involved.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 07/11/2017 - 01:31 pm.


    playing the Kelly Ann Conway avoidance game, never answered the question about her ‘personal’ response to Trump’s outbursts. …. same old, same old… with just a different face.

  4. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 07/11/2017 - 01:56 pm.

    Dems going to far? No….that’s repubs

    Durenberg claims the Dems have gone too far?
    * You mean like fixing the economy after the disastrous bush/repub years when the repubs obstructed every effort to fix our economy, that they messed up, because they wanted the economy to stay bad so Obama wouldn’t be reelected?
    * You mean like desiring affordable healthcare and prescriptions that without…can destroy the financial well being of almost everyone?
    * You mean like a desire to invest in K-12 education, something repubs across the country underfund?
    * You mean like getting the deficit under control, as we saw under Dem Clinton, that bush and the repubs absolutely destroyed? Repubs are always whining about the deficit, but they are always the result of repub policies to cut taxes for the wealthy…just the wealthy. Kansas is a good example of the total ineptness of repub policies…total chaos.
    * You mean like the desire to viably fund our vocational schools and colleges, something again refused by repubs who keep trying to increase the interest rate for student loans?

    I find it interesting that anyone could vote for this president who claimed he could grab a woman by her pu**y while at the same time talking about hitting on married women, a creature who has insulted women…vastly and horribly, a creature who insulted a handicapped reporter, Mexicans, Muslims and almost all immigrants, whose businesses have filed bankruptcy 6 times, whom it has been reported has Russian connections, while your repub party obstructs the investigation.
    I used to think that you Durenberg were one of the intelligent repubs. I guess they don’t exist, as they prefer hyperbole, inanity and deceit while working for only the wealthy.
    Hey repubs…if you disagree that this repub party works for us…give me some examples…as I cannot find anything in that area.

    • Submitted by Bruce Johnson on 07/12/2017 - 08:37 am.

      This is what Durenburger was quoted as saying:

      “There are some people who voted for the Republican because they just couldn’t vote for the Democrat. The way many see it is that the Democrats have just gone too far.”

      I didn’t read the quote as an endorsement of that sentiment.

  5. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 07/11/2017 - 02:47 pm.

    The Republican Party Needs Major Changes

    Leader Gazelka speaks of Trump’s policies and Trump’s common-sense ideas. First off who knows what Trump’s policies are? They change by the hour, written in tweets. Secondly Trump is out of touch with the world except for the 30% of Republicans who blindly fall for Trump’s nonsense. Never in my life time have we had a President so ill prepared for the office of President. The Republicans have given us three modern day doozies for President, Nixon, Bush Jr. and Trump. That is not a lineup the Republicans want to flaunt.
    Party Chair Caranahan thinks of herself as someone in the middle. If she or anyone supports Trump they definitely are not in the middle. The loss of being able to talk politics with some of her friends would seem obvious why that is, it’s Trump. Given the appearance of a political bombshell Donald Trump Junior put out today it will make supporting President Trump much much harder. Words of potential collusion, perjury, and treason are starting to be used about Trump and his crew, and not just by Democrats. Now the political dancing will have to be done by the Minnesota party leaders. Their justification of why voter should still support Trump will be interesting given why they said he should be supported in the past. The Minnesota Republicans might need to change their party name again. Choose something meaningful this time. While at it change your failed policies of only serving the special few. Tweaks around the edges just won’t do it. There is a whole state out here you could help, but you will need to change your policies first. They also need to change their definition of themselves as Conservative, because they anything but conservative. The Minnesota Republicans have a many years old debt they don’t seem to be able to retire, but they feel capable of running Minnesota. We don’t need another deficit run state again. I’m not interested in being another Kansas. I think more than Trump are out of touch with Minnesotans if the Minnesota Republican leaders feel capable of running the state. The many Trump investigations won’t make it any easier for Minnesota Republicans to repair their party.

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/11/2017 - 02:52 pm.

    Sadly, Doug Grow permitted this article to remain on the level of vague impressions of Trump’s “style,” and other 2016 campaign-slogan claims. There’s not a shred of policy substance here, just personality (including the personality of all those poor left-behinds in Minnesota!). Oh, we wish he wouldn’t tweet so much, is just so junior high school.

    When will our reporters and commentators actually take on what Trump knows about governing and what he is doing in policy areas? Or, is it only Democrats who care about policy? One thing we know: he is isolating the United States from the rest of the world, in economic and trade issues that affect manufacturing and agriculture and trade deficits as well as on the withdrawal of our country from any action to counter global warming caused by human activity. He is pushing the U.S down a swift slope of decline, materially and in influence.

    Maybe that won’t matter to Minnesotans who vote with their gut’s need for revenge against someone instead of their brains. But on health care, I wonder if personality will be enough for people to ignore how Trump’s inattention and false promises have led to personal disaster for many families, and if on other issues they even stop to consider that someone else–or someone not aligned with Trump–might be a whole lot better.

    I do wish that our news people would stop trying to be like a trivial “people” sort of magazine, and give us information detail. I mean, this is a president who so doesn’t understand what Russia is, that he would suggest a cyberintelligence partnership with them? Really, folks, you want this guy?

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 07/12/2017 - 04:58 pm.

      Have to agree

      The premise of the article, “Where the Minnesota GOP is headed in the age of Trump,” is a good one. But, unfortunately, that’s where the substance, or any relevant link to the title, vanished.

      The chairperson of the MN GOP is “all in on Trump!”?

      The Senate Majority Leader says “the forgotten people” see him as a “common sense” kind of guy who, he seems to think, is standing up for the little guy?

      The wily older school Republican is “less sure” about the president and suspects elected Republican officials are digging escape tunnels (in case there’s a flood)?

      As Ms. Sullivan put it, mostly some kind of review of a few MN Republican’s impressions of the president’s 2016 campaign-slogans.

      For example, I was hoping to read a little bit about what MN Republicans like Kurt Daubt, Joyce Peppin, Paul Gazelka, Matt Dean, Steve Draskowski, Glenn Grunhagen, Sara Anderson and others think about how the Russian government may have meddled in the election right here in Minnesota.

      Do they think it actually happened or, as Tom Emmer seems to believe, do they think it really is all just a witch hunt being fueled by fake news and the “deep state’s” desire to take down the president?

      Or, if they think there could be something to it, do they think it’s at all possible that any “residual benefit” or “coattail effect” of that MAY have helped them retain control of the House and gain control of the Senate?

      I was thinking we might read something about what those people think of the Republican health care plan and how they would approach whatever problems its passage would create in Minnesota.

      I don’t know, but it seems like MN Republican officials don’t have any views on those (and other pressing) issues related to where they and their party (and plans) may be headed “in the age of Trump.”

      And I have to agree that it doesn’t seem like anyone covering MN politics for Minnpost has any interest in: A) asking them; or B) pressing them a little when they start rattling off their first 5 or 6 meaningless escape tunnel talking points (see: Matt Dean on health care).

      I really WOULD like to know what our Republican officials think about some of these things and I’d like to know what they think about that ways in which the president’s and Congressional Republican’s policies might impact Minnesota and how they would deal with those things if they got passed into law.

      Oh . . . Another thing I’d really like to know is why no MN Republican that I’m aware of has had anything less than positive things to say about the president’s performance in office to this point. Our House and Senate Republicans seem to have either said nothing at all, or the kind of things they’ve said in this article.

      Maybe some other time (before next year’s election?).

  7. Submitted by Garth Taylor on 07/11/2017 - 10:22 pm.


    “His tweets get in the way of his message”? You’re kidding, right? Trump is a boor. His tweets are boorish. In all of your sanctimonious piety, you have decided that boorishness is acceptable as long as it comes with tax cuts for the wealthy. Come on, we’re among friends. Why don’t you just day this?

  8. Submitted by Aaron Albertson on 07/13/2017 - 12:33 am.

    Unfortunately for the MNGOP

    The population of the Twin Cities is growing more and more. If there’s a big wave these next two years, it’s gonna be hard to see them winning too many statewide races in 2022 and beyond. Especially seeing as Carver moved towards us in the last election, if here’s even a bit of a shift there and in Scott County, then the GOP is DOA. So Trump couldn’t have come at a worse time for them. We already saw what might be a legislative wave in Laurie Warner’s House district election.

  9. Submitted by Aaron Albertson on 07/13/2017 - 12:33 am.

    I seem to remember on twitter, Carnahan saying that “the D’s have become the party of Pelosi and cities. Real Americans want their country back”, or some nonsense like that. Which isn’t the smartest way to make inroads into Minneapolis and St. Paul.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/13/2017 - 11:32 am.


      She is rapidly turning herself into a punch-line. The Times (I believe) quoted her this as saying Mayor Hodges’s strategy of “running against Trump” is “disrespectful.”

      Because Republicans are all about respect for the presidency, right?

      • Submitted by Aaron Albertson on 07/13/2017 - 01:39 pm.

        I’m surprised at how she’s changed

        When she ran, I appreaciated her for not being a fire-breathing christian conservative, even if I would have voted for Bobby Joe Champion. I even thought she might be good for the party and make it more moderate. Guess she’s just like the other Repubs

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/13/2017 - 10:18 am.

    I’m really not trying to insult anyone…

    Anyone who’s “all-in” with Trump at this point is simply intellectually and morally vacant. Any notion that Trump represents any kind of popular “wave” is simply a product of that intellectual vacancy.

    The guy’s the most unpopular president to ever step into the White House. Every other president who every reached these levels of unpopularity took years to do so, this guy was unpopular the day he took the oath of office. Whatever.

    At every turn the Republican agenda at this point seeks to damage the country in one way or another, from the environment to foreign policy, that’s simply not sustainable. People who get into politics because they think their biggest problem is taxes, or “big” guvmint, are simply not credible, and slowly but surely American voters are finally (after decades) figuring that out.

    The clearest message coming out of recent elections is that Americans want a government that works, and works for ordinary people at least as much as it works for the elite. While the Democrats have failed to deliver that government, Republicans don’t even think it’s possible and have no coherent concept of governance, economics, or intellect. Without these qualities Republicans will simply fail to govern and produce a series of manufactured and self inflicted crises, but this time it will be on a massive and undeniable scale.

    For those of who belong to Karl Roves: “reality based community” the Republican claim that they are on the cusp of some kind of emerging Republican tidal wave is simply more evidence that they are completely disconnected from reality.

    So where is the MNGOP headed? Into the dust bin of history.

  11. Submitted by jim hughes on 07/18/2017 - 11:12 am.


    Where is “the Republican Party” today? There isn’t any “party” – Trump destroyed it in the last election. Reince Priebus, former head of the Party organization, is now a ghost in the White House, walking the halls at night in chains. Trump keeps him around for laughs.

    Today, if you’re calling yourself a Republican, you’re either on the bus with Trump, or you’re not. And if you’re on the bus, that means you’re for Trump – and nothing else; there isn’t any agenda beyond his personal success.

    If you’re a Republican and not on Trump’s bus, well. you can hang with a few National Security guys like McCain and Graham; or be part of the small crowd of remaining Tea Party wingnuts still paying attention to Cruz or Paul. Even the evangelicals got on the bus, and are now sitting in it staring straight ahead, in silence, wondering where they’re going.

    There won’t be a Republican Party again until Trump is gone, and down the road.

  12. Submitted by Michael Walter on 08/16/2017 - 12:38 pm.

    Comments from the local Republican leadership

    As I read this on August 16 this phrase jumps out at me:
    “I feel like the liberal media will say what they want to say. I also believe people will believe what they want to believe. His ardent supporters will stay with him no matter what.”
    Wow. Ms.Caranahan must walk the line between the believers, and the vast percentage of Minnesotans who are repulsed by Trump’s alt-right neo-Nazi leanings. On the news the other night she tried to distance herself and the local party from Trump, but let’s face it, the Democratic party is not the party of choice for those clothed in the white hoods. David Duke’s tweets are an invitation to the alt-right to step up their activity. Thank you Donald. Ms.Caranahan, have the courage to speak out against racist hatred no matter the source.

Leave a Reply