Leave your flamethrower at home if you’re heading to the state GOP convention

Party girds itself for disruption, with a long list of new rules and banned items this weekend

By: - May 13, 2022 6:00 am

Republicans enter the convention amid consternation. Getty Images

Minnesota Republicans may be confident going into the November election, but party officials are apparently expecting the worst at their state party convention this weekend in Rochester. 

A flier that a longtime GOP activist posted to social media included a lengthy list of items Republicans have been asked to leave at home: sling shots, flamethrowers, potato guns, cowbells, radio jamming devices, large knives, animals, “excessive amounts” of zip-ties, irritant sprays (“unless personal”) and “hoards of insects.”

Although guns are allowed — obviously — the list of prohibited items illustrates the strange mood of the Republican Party, as 2,200 delegates meet to endorse candidates for constitutional offices, including governor, in an effort to break a statewide losing streak that is now 16 years on. 

Republicans head into the convention buoyed by an opportunity to take over the Legislature and perhaps even the governor’s mansion, as inflation and the traditional mid-term advantage for the party out of power provide a stiff tailwind. 

But it’s also a party still in the throes of the chaos unleashed by former President Donald Trump, with activists fighting about who is the authentic red hat, fights over process and rules, and candidates desperate to appeal to the party’s loudest — and often most extreme — voices.

Although intra-party fights are nothing new, this year’s convention season has featured a striking mistrust, bordering on paranoia. 

That lack of trust has extended beyond the usual suspects — Democrats — to their own peers. 

On Thursday, the state central committee voted to ban videotaping of its meeting, which GOP operative Jennifer DeJournett said she’d never encountered in 23 years of Republican politics. 

After banning video, Republicans eliminated all affiliate groups, including the LGBT group Log Cabin Republicans, which was possibly the true target of the move.

After thirstily imbibing conspiracy theories about voting machines for the past 18 months — including from high-profile Minnesota pillow salesman Mike Lindell — some campaigns pushed for paper ballots rather than an electronic voting system at the convention. The party plans to use an electronic system, but said it will be prepared to use paper ballots “as a backup in an emergency.”

The party appears to be gearing up for a repeat of the disruptions at local GOP conventions this spring, when upstarts associated with Action 4 Liberty — a right-wing, anti-vaxx, anti-mask, “stop-the-steal” group on the fringes of the GOP — challenged establishment candidates.

The right-wingers had some success in winning or blocking endorsements in local conventions, and have become known for throwing sharp elbows: Rep. Joe McDonald, R-Delano, and Rep. Nolan West, R-Blaine, were forcibly removed from Action 4 Liberty caucus trainings.

The GOP previously announced plans to vet volunteers, charge campaigns for volunteers and bar people who “publicly attack” the party or its endorsed candidates from attending the state convention. 

Former GOP operative Michael Brodkorb — who has chaired GOP conventions — called the move unprecedented. 

The party also asked all statewide campaigns to submit a list of their volunteers one week before the convention and said it would charge campaigns up to $30 per volunteer to conduct criminal background checks on them. 

Unprecedented, perhaps, but not necessarily irrational given the party’s recent entanglement with former top donor and operative Anton Lazzaro, who is set to go on trial after being charged last summer with sex trafficking of a minor. 

David FitzSimmons, who is chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach, told the Reformer last month that state party officials “have to be mindful” of the chaos created at some local conventions. 

Police were twice called to the Morrison County Republican convention in Little Falls in March to deal with an “unruly crowd” after right-wing activists took over the convention floor. 

GOP political consultant Amy Koch said while she likes grassroots movements and shaking up the status quo, Action 4 Liberty seems to be little more than a self-aggrandizing venture for its leaders.

“Everyone is the enemy,” she said. “It’s an easy message — which is, everyone is not conservative enough … and doesn’t put up a fight.”

Action 4 Liberty President Jake Duesenberg did not respond to a request for comment.

Based on what the group has accomplished during convention season, Koch said, the movement is “a bigger deal than people give it credit for.” The state convention will be a test of their true impact. 

Clay County may have two sets of delegates

In addition to the 2,220 expected delegates, another 22 delegates from Clay County may show up uninvited after a power struggle divided the county party.

A faction of Clay County Republicans stood by former chair Edwin Hahn when he refused to step down after some members voted to remove him March 8. 

They elected a new chair, Rod Johnson, who has said Hahn harassed delegates, bullied people and put his personal beliefs over the party platform, by opposing mask mandates at school board meetings, for example. 

Hahn called it a coup d’état orchestrated by Calvin Benson, who is the son of former gubernatorial candidate Michelle Benson and does outreach for Fischbach.

Hahn has ignored the state party’s order that he “cease and desist” representing himself as chair, and continued to hold weekly meetings with his supporters. 

The state party canceled the Clay County convention amid the power struggle, so the Hahn faction held its own convention in a Glyndon farmhouse, electing delegates they said would attend congressional and state conventions. 

Which means two groups of Clay County delegates could show up at the state convention, a dilemma the credentialing committee will likely have to sort out.

Brodkorb said while every major party deals with some level of chaos in an election cycle, he’s never seen anything “quite like this” since he first attended a convention in 1996.

“It’s a little bit of a perfect storm for chaos,” he said, noting that legislative redistricting always causes disagreements, too. “There is a level of extremism inside the party that is very uncomfortable for me… extremism that I find so unsettling and unnerving these days.”

Suspicion, accusations and conspiracies began sprouting after the Feb. 1 precinct caucuses, where there were discrepancies between the number of people who attended the caucuses and the number who voted.

The new rules could add tension and drama to the convention, Brodkorb said. While it’s important to crown winners, it’s also important to make sure the people who lose don’t leave angry.

“I think they’re trying to do whatever they can administratively to have there be an orderly convention,” Brodkorb said. 

The big question this weekend is whether the party can coalesce around its candidates for statewide office.

The major candidates for governor — who each hope to win the party endorsement with 60% of the delegates — include former state Sen. Scott Jensen, a family physician who rose to prominence making claims about COVID-19 and vaccines that medical authorities have rebuked. He was recently in the news for suggesting Secretary of State Steve Simon should be imprisoned. 

State Sen. Paul Gazelka, who has roots in the religious right, has received the backing of a major statewide police organization and former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, though he faces mistrust from some in the grassroots due to years of legislative dealmaking with Democrats. 

Former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek joined the race late and lost his own 2018 reelection. 

Kendall Qualls was defeated by U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips in 2020, but has shown impressive fundraising skill. 

Dr. Neil Shah is the favorite of the hard right like Action 4 Liberty, especially during debates. 

Given the possibility of a chaotic convention or no endorsement, a competitive primary seems possible.  

Party bigwigs like U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer have pleaded for unity, telling a crowd recently that he narrowly lost his campaign for governor in 2010 because “Republicans were splintered.” 

“So I say to any candidate out there, if you think you’re going to undermine the credibility of the state convention, think again,” said Emmer, who leads the party’s congressional election effort in Washington. 

FitzSimmons said he doesn’t think the far-right factions and new convention rules will make it harder for the party to unify afterward.

“The party always comes together for the most part,” he said. “Somehow we find a way to move on.”

Moving on is one thing, but winning is another. 

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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.