New Minnesota GOP chairman: ‘Republican Party does not equal party of Trump’
Party is reeling from disorder but has prospects to make big gains.
ST. PAUL — As the new chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota, David Hann sees tantalizing potential in the not-too-distant future.
But in the here and now, he knows he’s got a lot of work to do.
Hann, a 69-year-old former state senator from the west metro, took over last month after being elected chairman of a party with prospects to make gains in the Minnesota Legislature, but also lurching forward after internal convulsions while it tries to define itself in the post-Trump era — if this even is the post-Trump era.
About a year from now, all state lawmakers will be on the ballot, as will the governor’s seat, other statewide offices and all eight seats in the U.S. House. It will be the “midterm elections” with a president from the opposing party in the White House — a time when, historically, the party not in the White House often makes big gains.
“We think that next year will be a very good year for Republicans for a lot of reasons,” Hann said in a recent interview in which he discussed the current state of the party, former President Donald Trump’s continued influence and the veins within the party of those who deny the results of the President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory. Hann’s comments came before the Nov. 2 elections, where Republicans fared well in states such as Virginia and New Jersey and raised hopes of Republicans here even higher.
Hann rattled off a series of zingers aimed at Democrats, including Biden’s “(Jimmy) Carter economics” and “debacle in Afghanistan”; Gov. Tim Walz’s “shutting down of businesses” and “handling of the riots”; and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s alleged aim to “disarm or defund the police” while the Democratic stronghold of Minneapolis witnesses “people afraid to walk the streets” in the midst of a spike in shootings. They’re the types of phrases Minnesotans can expect to hear for the next year as Republicans make their case.
In Minnesota, Republicans could strengthen their majority in the state Senate and possibly take back control of the state House. Unseating incumbent DFLers in statewide races is expected to be a taller order, as the last Republican to win statewide in Minnesota was Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2006, but Hann won’t concede any race. In Washington, Republican ambitions are to take back both chambers of Congress, which are each narrowly controlled by Democrats.
But before any of that can happen, Hann has more immediate work to do with the party: “We have to stabilize the organization.”
Organization in turmoil?
“We’ve gone through a little bit of, maybe ‘turmoil’ is too strong a word,” Hann said. “We need to rebuild the trust people have in the organization.”
Indeed, the election of Hann comes as the organization is emerging from a meat-grinder of troubles.
Former party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan resigned in August amid a whirlwind of controversy. Anton Lazzaro, a party operative and prolific donor who was a longtime adviser and supporter of Carnahan, was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of sex trafficking minors. He has pleaded not guilty.
Carnahan condemned the alleged actions and denied she knew of any illegal activity, but the charges against both Lazzaro and the former chair of the University of St. Thomas College Republicans set off a deluge of grievances against her.
The complaints against Carnahan, which came from fellow Republicans and amounted to a public unloading of years of festering criticisms, ranged from fostering a toxic work culture to presiding over an organization that ignores pleas of sexual harassment, including her use of non-disclosure agreements and non-disparagement clauses as a weapon to stifle criticism of her. The anti-Carnahan bombardment was so thorough it even included a voice recording, shared via social media and later confirmed by Carnahan, of her making callous comments about her husband’s medical condition while asking another man to join her and several friends at a hotel. Her husband, U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, is battling Stage 4 kidney cancer. Carnahan apologized for the remarks and said she had been drinking.
It is against that backdrop that Hann has stepped in.
Hann was known in the Legislature as a social and fiscal conservative who espoused a moral clarity aspired to by his generation of Republicans.
He had ascended to become the minority leader of the Senate — and stood in a strong position to become majority leader after Republicans won control of the chamber in 2016, except that Hann lost his own seat to Democrat Steve Cwodzinski.
Hann then spent several years largely outside the thick of party matters as executive director of the Minnesota Association of Townships, where he lobbied for issues like broadband internet access in rural areas.
He stayed clear of the vitriol and polarization that surrounded the Trump presidency.
“Having been away from the political arena for a couple of years I think is helpful,” he said, summarizing his pitch to party members like this: “I’m a known quantity. I’ve been around the political world long enough. I think I have a good reputation. I think there’s an opportunity for me to reassure people if they need reassuring.”
Hann said he voted for Trump both times, and he’s sent welcoming signals to Trump supporters.
But he’s not willing to parrot Trump’s false claims that Biden’s victory was not legitimate.
“I don’t think there’s any question abut that. Joe Biden won — and in Minnesota, certainly,” Hann said.
Still, he downplays the role in election denialism of Trump, who said before his 2016 victory that he might not accept the results if he didn’t like them and did the same before his 2020 loss. Hann implied, as other Republicans have, that skepticism about the results of the presidential election — the same election that saw Republicans hold their majority in the state Senate — is based on legitimate concerns that grew from the populous.
“I think there’s concern among a fairly significant number of people … who have concerns about the process and are not sure it was conducted as transparently as it ought to be,” he said. “There were a lot of changes that were made because of COVID, and these things contribute to people’s sense of fairness and sense of trust in the results, but I don’t think there’s any question about who won the election.”
At a forum while campaigning for party chairmanship, Hann pledged to act upon a state law that allows major parties to inspect the software programming — or in his words, “source code” — behind voting machines, another signal that he’s taking an open stance toward those who deny Trump’s loss.
But unlike Carnahan, who quickly became a full-throated amplifier of Trump’s messages on social media, Hann appears to be attempting to walk a fine line of moderation among the the party’s all-in-for-Trump members, as well as those who for years have remained privately uncomfortable with Trump but publicly supportive or mute.
Not 'Party of Trump'
For example, Hann rejected the idea that the Republican Party can today be called “the party of Trump.”
“I don’t know that that identification persists past the time the president is in office,” he said. “I would not agree that the Republican Party equals Donald Trump and whatever his vision is. He’s a private citizen at this point. He may be a candidate again. I don’t know. There are other people who are seeking to become the nominee the next presidential cycle.
“There are clearly people in the Republican Party who like President Trump and want to see him run again, but there are others who don’t. … To me, it seems odd to say ‘it’s the party of Trump’ when he’s not the president. You could say the Democratic Party is the party of Joe Biden.”
The job of a party chair isn’t generally to pick sides in contentious issues — at least not in Minnesota, where party chairs don’t wield the power of bosses as they have traditionally in some states. Many point to the relative longevity of DFL Chairman Ken Martin, who has served since 2011, as an example of how a deft-handed party chair in Minnesota must respect all the factions in the tent, while portraying an image that represents the most widely popular ideals.
The other job of the party chair, perhaps the most important, is to raise money.
Carnahan has been credited with inheriting a GOP deep in debt and managing it to an era in the black. The party Hann now oversees appears to be operating slightly above the margins, according to financial statements filed with state and federal campaign agencies. The organization has small amounts of available cash — thousands or tens of thousands of dollars — after its debt is subtracted from its reserves.
It’s a pittance compared to the DFL. The DFL’s federal fundraising arm reported about $714,000 more cash on hand than the GOP at the beginning of the year, and state reports indicate the advantage was about $1.6 million.
But lopsided funding in favor of Democrats has been a feature of Minnesota politics for years, and Hann, while acknowledging “every political organization needs to raise money,” downplayed the financial gap. “We try to keep things pretty lean,” he said.
Other internal challenges include filling a number of job positions, as Carnahan’s tenure and departure were marked by bouts of high turnover. Hann declined to discuss specifics.
“I think the problems in the Republican Party of Minnesota are much deeper than the challenges of the moment,” said Steven Schier, a retired professor of political science at Carleton College. “I think it’s a question of the entire institution lacking resources and lacking a candidate pool if they ever want to win statewide office anytime soon.”
Schier doesn’t think Republicans are a dying breed in Minnesota. Rather, he says the party’s potential influence is limited by the lack of a strong and well-funded statewide party.
Schier noted that Republican candidates for Legislature have the support of political organizations staffed and led by House and Senate GOP caucuses. “They have resources,” he said, “but what can the state party really bring? Hann’s got short-term problems, sure, but he’s got long-term problems.”
Schier said he suspects Hann will indeed provide a steadying hand to the party, but he said it remains to be seen whether Hann can raise money.
“The thing about Hann is, he’s strongly conservative — but he’s low-key,” Schier said. “And he’s unproven in raising money.”
For Hann’s part, he has remained low-key indeed. He’s remained inactive on Twitter, and the party’s official Twitter account hasn’t posted anything since Sept. 11. The relative quiet has mirrored Hann’s down-to-business message.
“I see the role of the party as being to make sure that there’s a clear focus and to understand what our mission is,” he said. “Our goal is frankly to elect Republicans, whose philosophy of governance is very different than the Democrats.”