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Port: Legislative candidates involved in bigotry scandal play the victim instead of owning their actions

Conservatives used to talk a lot about personal responsibility. You don't hear much about that from today's Republicans.

Ethan Harsell
Ethan Harsell is the NDGOP's candidate for state House in Grand Forks-area district 43.
Campaign photo
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MINOT, N.D. — Two Republican legislative candidates, rather than owning their own words and actions, are busy portraying themselves as victims.

According to a news release put out by NDGOP District 11 chair Susy Oliver, on behalf of her district, state House candidate Carter Eisinger is a victim of cancel culture.

At issue is my reporting about a messaging group organized by the North Dakota Young Republicans, a group affiliated with the North Dakota Republican Party of which Eisinger and many other Republican lawmakers, candidates, and activists are members. This group routinely saw bigoted messages posted — including homophobic slurs, white supremacist tropes, and anti-Semitic content — while people like Eisinger, and Oliver herself, looked on.

Per Oliver, her candidate Eisinger doesn't deserve criticism for this. Allegedly, Eisinger doesn't condone bigotry, and yet is experiencing the "destructive forces of cancel culture."

"If he can be publicly held to account for the private comments of others, what might the future hold for the rest of us?," Oliver's news release asks , breathlessly, with the question in bold.

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Let's review Eisinger's involvement in this matter, shall we?

First, let's note that many of the homophobic messages were posted in response to Eisinger himself. When Eisinger wrote a message in the Telegram complaining about Fargo Democratic Rep. Josh Boschee's activism on gay rights, a user named Matt Evans responded referring to both Boschee and Fargo City Commissioner John Strand as "alphabet soup creatures," a reference to the LGBTQ+ acronym. He also described Boschee as a "degenerate clown."

Another user, Ben Schirrick, the president of the North Dakota State University College Republicans, responded to Eisinger with a complaint about a "f-g festival" on campus.

Per my source in the Telegram group, and per the screenshots of conversations they provided me, at no point did Eisinger push back on these responses in the group. Per Oliver's release, Eisinger now claims to have contacted people privately to express his concerns about the language, but I can't speak to whether or not that's true.

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I should note that at no point has Eisinger responded to my requests seeking comment on this matter. In fact, as you'll see in a moment, he posted messages in the Telegram group mocking my inquiries.

Eisinger also denies having said he was proud to be visible in screenshots from the message group showing the homophobic slurs. Oliver's statement accuses me of misquoting Eisinger, and she's right as far as that goes. In my original article , which I will correct, I put quotation marks around the word "proud" making it seem as though Eisinger had used that word.

He didn't. That's my mistake.

He used the word "love."

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"I love being in that screenshot with you Ben lol," he wrote, also posting a screenshot of his own showing a Facebook message I had sent him requesting comment. I had included screenshots of Schirrick's posts in that message.

In Oliver's release, she claims Eisinger's message was intended as a "sarcastic" expression of "distaste" in Schirrick's language.

Prior to that exchange, Eisinger was joking with along Schirrick wanting to kiss me. "Careful Ben," he wrote, "you wouldn't want rob to get a hold of this too haha."

Again, in these messages Schirrick continued using a homophobic slur, writing it over and over again in messages posted as the same time I was interviewing him on the phone, and at no point did Eisinger express, in his own messages, a problem with it.

Read the messages for yourself:

In related news, Ethan Harsell, the NDGOP candidate in District 43, in Grand Forks, also continues his campaign, despite his participation in this now-infamous Telegram group, as well as a slew of ugly Twitter posts I wrote about last week .

When I spoke to Harsell for that column, he expressed remorse for what he'd written. He told me the posts "do not reflect me at all."

"280 characters do not reflect who I am," he continued, referring to the character limit for Twitter posts. "I want to talk about the issues facing Grand Forks. I would like to apologize deeply for my actions. This does not reflect me as a candidate. I am not affiliated with any of those things. I was on the wrong side of the road, but I'm trying to get back on the right side of the road."

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Yet, on Snapchat, where Harsell is trying to organize volunteers for his campaign, he claimed my reporting is false. Kameron Anderson, who was one of the recipients of Harsell's messages, shared screenshots with me. They show him asking Harsell why he hadn't suspended his campaign.

"I'm not going to suspend my campaign over common political defamation," he responded.

Again, Harsell expressed remorse when I spoke with him on the phone for last week's story, and at no point as he contacted me to indicate that any part of my story was inaccurate.

"I just meant that it's common political slander, I didn't mean anything against you," Harsell said when I called him and asked him about these messages.

I asked him if any part of my story was inaccurate. "No," he told me. "I just meant attacks like this are common in politics."

He then told me he wasn't "interested in an interview" and ended our conversation.

After our phone call, Harsell texted me. "I don't wish to comment on this story but what I will say is I am not suspending my campaign. We are going in strong with support and will finish strong in November," he wrote.

The approach both Eisinger and Harsell are taking in this matter is a familiar one to anyone who follows modern politics. When political figures become the target of media or public criticism, they play the victim. They blame "cancel culture" and, rather than be contrite about their behavior, they question the motivations of their critics.

What's troubling is how often it works, no matter how factual the criticism.

Conservatives used to talk a lot about personal responsibility. You don't hear much about that from today's Republicans.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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