Clay County GOP convention canceled after dispute over who’s the county chair

Right-wing activists continue to rankle the party

By: - March 25, 2022 3:59 pm

Voters walk into a polling station at the Minnesota National Guard Minneapolis armory Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

The Clay County Republican convention scheduled for Saturday in Moorhead has been canceled in connection with a dispute over who is the rightful chair of the county party. 

Edwin Hahn of Moorhead refused to step down after the Clay County Republican Party voted to remove him March 8 due to “ethical violations” and “conduct unbecoming.” The county party’s executive board announced on Facebook that they’d voted to remove him and elected Rod Johnson as chair.

But Hahn has called the board’s move a coup d’etat, saying the board lacked a quorum and therefore its vote was null and void. He likened their actions to “other acts of election malfeasance which this country as a whole has witnessed on a grand scale in the most recent major elections.”

Hahn has accused the son of gubernatorial candidate Michelle Benson, Calvin Benson, of trying to force him out to help her campaign. 

The state Republican Party served Hahn with a “cease and desist” notice on March 17, demanding that he stop representing himself as chair of the county party

That set the stage for a heated convention, with Hahn encouraging his supporters to show up and “speak truth to the swamp,” and Johnson telling county Republicans that security would be on hand, according to The Forum in Fargo.  

On Friday, the state party canceled the whole thing “due to the erratic behavior of Edwin Hahn,” according to a state GOP press release. The venue for the Clay County convention, the Moorhead National Guard Armory, canceled, according to the release. 

The press release said since his removal, Hahn has repeatedly and falsely presented himself as a party officer, made unfounded allegations of many kinds, and made threats against local and state party leaders, including promising to inflict “unrestrained retaliation upon their most vulnerable points of pain.”

“It is unfortunate that Edwin’s behavior has cost the Clay County Republican BPOU the opportunity to hold a convention. Clay County Republicans deserve better and we condemn his behavior,” Johnson said in the press release.

The county party won’t be able to hold a convention before the state party’s deadline, the release said, or elect a new slate of delegates for the state and congressional conventions. Instead, the state party will recognize the delegates and alternates elected by the party in 2020. 

The canceled convention is sure to rankle an already-suspicious, conspiracy-minded segment of Clay County Republicans. Hahn — an anti-vaxxer, anti-critical race theory candidate — is running for the state Senate in District 4, a seat now held by Kent Eken, DFL-Audubon. Hahn lost a House District 4A race in 2020, and challenged the results with a lawsuit claiming irregularities surrounding absentee ballots. A judge threw out the lawsuit.

The state Republican Party is being attacked from the right, as right-wingers have challenged what they call establishment candidates and pushed for more strident candidates. On March 12, police were twice called to the Morrison County Republican convention in Little Falls to deal with an “unruly crowd” after right-wing activists took over the convention floor. 

Hahn has said in interviews that Calvin Benson — who works for U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach and whose mother, Michelle Benson, is running for governor — is behind what he calls a coup. 

He said Calvin Benson hand-delivered an unsigned, undated letter with “salacious” allegations against him. But Hahn said they didn’t follow the proper process for removing him. In interviews, Hahn has also accused Benson and others of voting down election integrity resolutions and threatening a lawsuit over them. 

Hahn suggested perhaps Benson was worried his election integrity resolution would threaten Fischbach’s election, and that Benson is working on his mother’s behalf.

“I’m not sure exactly what’s going on, but we know that there’s power struggles happening here,” Hahn said in a WZFG radio interview. 

Hahn, Johnson and Calvin Benson could not be immediately reached for comment.

Johnson told The Forum Hahn was voted out because he harassed delegates, bullied and intimidated people, put personal beliefs over party platform and added party board members’ names without their permission to his 2020 lawsuit.

Calvin Benson’s conservative credentials are now being questioned, and Hahn accused him of having a conflict of interest in that his mother would have been seeking delegates’ support at the convention.

Hahn claimed the “Minnesota deep swamp” made the move to stop  conservative reforms and install a “puppet” chair and executive board. He said he wants to take the power away from the executive board and give it back to the people and elect “good, conservative folks” in Clay County. 

“That takes the power away from the establishment, and their agenda, and those people that they want to install,” he said in a radio interview.

This story was updated on Saturday to reflect a GOP press release.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.