After a tumultuous summer, more than 350 Minnesota Republican Party delegates will meet in Hopkins Saturday to choose a new party leader. The choice comes at a pivotal time headed into a difficult election year and after former chair Jennifer Carnahan stepped down amid a scandal involving a party donor.
Carnahan’s resignation came in August after federal prosecutors filed sex trafficking charges against Anton Lazzaro, a GOP donor who had been close to Carnahan. There were also allegations, which Carnahan denied, that she had created a toxic environment at the party offices.
Candidates to replace Carnahan stepped forward following her departure.
“Obviously, this was not something I was planning to do this year,” said former state Senator David Hann, who said he decided to run for party chair at the urging of several fellow Republicans.
Hann represented Eden Prairie in the senate from 2003 through 2016, and for part of that time was the minority leader. He lost his reelection bid in 2016 — the same election where Republicans won the Senate majority.
Hann said he believes he has the skills needed to move the party beyond its recent controversy and restore confidence.
“I’m doing this because I’m committed to what the party stands for. I’m not looking for higher office,” Hann said. “I’m not looking for anything other than the opportunity to serve an organization whose mission is very important.”
Hann’s challengers include Jerry Dettinger, a business executive who is stressing his private-sector leadership experience. He is the CEO of Torque Fitness, an exercise equipment manufacturer. Dettinger said he won't accept a salary as chair and that he wants to rebuild the party’s financial war chest to win elections in 2022.
“I am really excited by the enthusiasm that the party has at the grassroots,” Dettinger said. “There’s a lot of people who are flowing into the party, who want to know how to get involved. So, it looks good. I think we have a great opportunity in 2022 to do well.”
Asked whether any lingering issues related to Carnahan's exit need to be addressed, Dettinger stressed that he's looking ahead rather than the recent past.
"Yeah, I think the party is ready to move forward," he said.
Others who filed as candidates include Leilani Holmstadt, Forest Hyatt, Mark Miles and Phillip Parrish.
Holmstadt ran unsuccessfully for the state senate in 2020. Hyatt was a U.S. Senate candidate that year. Parrish has run for several offices, including a bid for governor in 2018.
Carnahan is not a candidate, but she said in a recent social media post that she was denied an opportunity to speak at the meeting. She said that delegates deserved to hear from her and make the decision for her to stay or move on.
Michael Brodkorb, a former deputy chair of the state Republican party, said Carnahan is looming over the vote.
"I don't think that she is going to go away quietly,” Brodkorb said. “I think that it will be important for whoever gets elected chair of the party to make sure that Carnhan's supporters feel included in the party process."
Dettinger and Hann are the frontrunners, Brodkorb believes. He said whoever wins faces big challenges to get the party united, organized and well-funded for the 2022 campaign. The last time Republicans won a statewide race was 2006, when then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty was reelected.
The party has been rudderless too long, Brodkorb said.
"The party, Republican party, has been at a tremendous disadvantage with the fact that there's been a void in that leadership position,” Brodkorb said. “It puts them at a competitive disadvantage right now with the Democrats in Minnesota."
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.