Minnesota Republicans say changes needed after losing power to DFL 'trifecta'

As soon as the dust settled on Minnesota Republicans' surprise election loss that saw Democrats sweep control of state government this month, the GOP started assessing what happened and what's required for a comeback.

The 2022 election seemed to align for Republicans: an unpopular president, high inflation, concerns about crime, and the GOP's historical edge during lower-turnout midterms. Republicans expected to split the four statewide races while regaining control of the state Legislature. Instead, Democrats swept the statewide races, kept the House, and retook the Senate, giving them full control for the first time in a decade. 

Interviews with party officials, strategists, and activists reveal there's no single fix. Some Republicans said the election's turning point came in June, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and the party didn't adapt well to the changed landscape. Others said the Minnesota GOP requires structural change to become a competitive force in statewide elections, where it has been shut out since 2006.

"They don't like the message, and they don't like the messenger. It's time to change it up," said Amy Koch, a Republican strategist and former Senate majority leader. "We're just not going to be red-meat Florida, Texas, or Alabama. The rhetoric doesn't work. The attitude doesn't work."

While Republicans racked up huge margins in rural Minnesota counties, the GOP lost badly in urban and suburban areas, where the majority of Minnesota voters reside. 

"It's obviously disappointing when you have -- apparently -- an environment that's in your favor and it turns out not to be," David Hann, the Minnesota GOP chairman, said in an interview. "To me, the biggest takeaway is that we need to become stronger in metro and suburban areas."

Hann has been party chair for 13 months, winning the job after former party chair Jennifer Carnahan resigned under pressure. He said he's running for a new term during the GOP's leadership election in December, and expects there will be challengers.

When he took the job, Hann said he cautioned party officials and donors that it will take a "five-year plan" to make Republicans the majority party in Minnesota. This week, he said the GOP's fundraising and voter turnout efforts improved this year, though they still lag the Minnesota DFL.

Abortion, women voters

Scott Jensen, who lost to DFL Gov. Tim Walz by 7.7 percentage points, said the abortion issue was his downfall in the governor's race. As he campaigned for the GOP endorsement this spring, Jensen said he would try to ban abortion. While he later shifted his stance toward allowing exceptions, Democratic-aligned groups spent heavily to attack Jensen's earlier comments.

"The Republican party has got to throw a wider tent out there, and that means we have room in this tent for pro-life and pro-choice people," Jensen said in an interview at his family medical practice in Watertown. "If we don't do that, I don't see how we win statewide."

Jensen said his inner circle of advisers and a broader group of Republicans advised him to ignore the abortion issue, expecting that it would "fizzle" before the election. "It hurt us. We never recovered," Jensen said.

In the interview, Jensen called for policies that he began advocating for late in the campaign: over-the-counter birth control with a $10 monthly copay, paid maternity leave, and tax credits for adopting a child. 

The abortion issue contributes to a problem that Minnesota Republicans have with women voters, Koch said. The GOP has become "so prescriptive and so rigid" that it forgets that many voters support a middle ground, such as a late-term abortion ban, or exceptions to an ban for rape, incest, or the health of the mother, she said.

But Republicans' image problem with women voters goes further, Koch said. She pointed to the incoming Minnesota Senate caucus, which counts just three female senators among its 33 members.

"I don't know who was doing the recruiting. But what woman would look at that and go, 'Yeah, the Republican party's for me?'" Koch said.

Structural problems

Republicans were unable to counter the spending from Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a group that pools campaign cash from Democratic-aligned organizations to spend on Minnesota races. That group alone spent at least $13 million against Jensen -- and campaign finance reports don't yet reflect spending in the last two weeks of the race.

Despite the structural disadvantage, Republicans came close to winning statewide races for attorney general and auditor. 

The auditor's race was the closest, with Republican Ryan Wilson coming within 8,435 votes of defeating incumbent Democrat Julie Blaha. The results fell just outside the 0.25% range for a state-funded recount.

"We picked on some issues that, regardless of your political perspective, you could come to an agreement if you have someone who's reasonable, who's thoughtful, who's willing to listen -- and then also clearly communicate that in a very focused way," said Jennifer DeJournett, Wilson's campaign manager. 

Most stunning to some Republicans is how much ground they've lost in the Twin Cities suburbs. In 2018, Democratic U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips flipped a congressional seat in the western suburbs that the GOP held for 60 years. This year, it wasn't close: Phillips won re-election by more than 19 percentage points. 

DeJournett said Republicans can win back the ground they've lost in the suburbs. It will take candidates who are authentic and willing to listen to what the voters want them to do, she said. "You're never going to win a statewide race on either side of the spectrum. You do win the race by talking to Minnesotans about the things they care about," she said.

Endorsement process

Some party veterans say they hope the 2022 election serves as a wake-up call about how Republicans pick their statewide candidates.

Minnesota Republicans leave the decision up to roughly 2,000 activists at their state party convention. The convention delegates are chosen at generally low-attendance precinct caucuses in late winter, when few voters are focused on the looming election. The delegates hold significant power, because GOP candidates who aren't endorsed at the convention traditionally drop out of the race.

In other states, including Wisconsin, losing candidates typically don't drop out after the convention. That triggers a primary election.

Kelly Fenton, a former deputy Minnesota GOP chairwoman and state lawmaker, said the party needs to transition to a primary process.

"It's no secret that we have not endorsed a winning candidate in over a decade. So, something absolutely needs to change," she said. "It's definitely time to modernize the system, and I think to modernize means we should move to primary."

Doing so would require candidates to hone their appeal to voters statewide, instead of a limited number of convention delegates, she said. 

Hann said he was "agnostic" on the debate over primaries versus the current system because neither offers a "magic bullet."

Trump factor, the road ahead

Republicans also must decide whether former President Donald Trump remains the head of their party. This week, Trump announced a third run for the White House.

Some Minnesota Republicans, including Koch and Fenton, said Trump is too divisive.

"I don't think Trump at this point is the right person," Fenton said. "Our bench is deep. Sometimes, it takes a fresh face, a fresh perspective, to message good policy and get it across to the voter."

Republicans who don't want to see their party nominate Trump for a third time pinned the 2022 election results on the former president. Trump is on a losing streak with the 2018 midterms, his own 2020 election loss, and this month's result, Koch said. "He's one for four. And that record isn't a record of success," she said.

Trump came within 1.5 percentage points of winning Minnesota in 2016, but fared far worse in 2020, when he lost by 7.1 points.

Democrats last held full control of state government in 2014. That's recent enough that many Republicans in positions of power remember it and know that the next election can turn around their prospects.

Republicans regained the Minnesota House that same year. The GOP retook the Senate, which is on a four-year term, in the next election cycle of 2016.

"In two years, when we have another election for the Minnesota House, I think you'll see a change," Hann said. "I believe that the House will turn to Republican hands in the next two years."