Write-in challenger stirs up Republican politics in Otter Tail County

political signs along a sidewalk
Political signs for Republican candidates in the Minnesota state senate district 9 race compete for space along a busy street in Fergus Falls, Minn., on Oct. 20.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The conflict in the Otter Tail County Republican Party isn't new. It's been brewing the past few election cycles, but one party official says the dispute is coming to a head this year.

Minnesota Senate District 9 includes Otter Tail, Wilkin, Traverse, Grant and part of Douglas counties in western Minnesota. Otter Tail is the largest and most populous county in the district.

Jordan Rasmusson is the Republican candidate in Senate District 9. Elected to the state House two years ago, he earned party endorsement for the Senate seat and won a close primary contest against challenger Nathan Miller this year.

a man holds a sign and a flag
Minnesota state Senate District 9 Republican challenger Nathan Miller.
Courtesy Nathan Miller campaign

But Miller pushed on with a write-in campaign in the general election.

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"I think unfortunately, we have an individual who can't accept that he lost,” said Rasmusson, who clearly would rather not talk about the intraparty squabble.

“We'll continue talking to voters and we've had a lot of his supporters who, especially since the primary, have come out and said ‘hey, we're gonna be supporting you 100 percent.’ You know, I've beaten Mr. Miller twice: first at the Republican endorsing convention and also the August primary,” he said. “And I think when I'm out talking to folks, they want that proven conservative leader who gets things done on behalf of the community.”

Miller alleges Rasmusson won the party endorsement because Republican Party officials manipulated the delegate selection process.

"To me, it's very elementary rules of engagement or rules of fair play, winning and losing, is that it's better to lose with honor than to win as a cheat or a liar," Miller said.

a man wearing a cowboy hat poses for a photo
Nathan Miller launched a write-in campaign after losing the Republican primary in Minnesota Senate District 9.
Courtesy Nathan Miller

Otter Tail County Republican Party chair Ben Anderson said clerical errors during the caucus were corrected, and those corrections were approved by the state Republican Party. Anderson questions whether Miller and his supporters understand the political process.

"We just wish that they would take the time to actually learn about the process and what we have to work through," said Anderson.

"Oh, the process, the process,” said Miller. “Well, the process clearly is showing that it allows for bad actors to be involved, and to swampy up their caucuses or their conventions.”

Miller describes himself as a constitutional conservative. He often wears a cowboy hat and keeps a gun on his hip in support of Second Amendment rights. He contends he's fighting for transparency and honesty.

A man talks on a phone
Minnesota Senate District 9 Republican candidate Jordan Rasmusson organizes volunteers for an afternoon of door knocking in Battle Lake, Minn., on Oct. 20.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The Republican Party of Minnesota recently filed a complaint with the state Office of Administrative Hearings alleging Miller is violating state law by identifying himself as a Republican candidate.

Miller said some of his campaign signs have been damaged recently.

Local Republicans say they've been harassed by Miller supporters.

Harry Merickel is part of the Otter Tail County Republican Party leadership team. He previously worked for the Minnesota House GOP caucus before moving to Otter Tail County to run a business.

He said social media harassment is common, and party meetings have been disrupted by shouting and arguing.

As a result, he and other local Republicans see some party loyalists avoid party meetings, choosing to instead quietly work in the background for candidates.

Merickel said he won’t be intimidated.

"With Mr. Miller's rhetoric, it's all hat, no cattle,” he said. “It energizes a certain group of people, it speaks to a certain group of people, but I'm not concerned. I don't think we're heading to any shootouts at the OK Corral."

But he believes a line has been crossed, and it's time for the party to reject people who refuse to support party goals and candidates.

"We've enabled this behavior to kind of precipitate over the years and now you know, I'm kind of beyond the feeling that we need to cater to these certain individuals," he said.

County Party Chair Ben Anderson doesn't expect Miller’s write-in campaign to have much impact on the race, but he said the conflict costs the local party time, money and energy.

"If things don't go your way, it doesn't mean that you can then just start taking these different approaches and making things up and going outside of party processes, going outside of state law, to do what you want to do," said Anderson.

two men talk in a parking lot
Minnesota Senate District 9 Republican candidate Jordan Rasmusson talks with retired state representative Bud Nornes as they prepare for an afternoon of door knocking in Battle Lake, Minn., on Oct. 20.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

A long time local politician, retired state Rep. Bud Nornes said conflict in political parties isn't unusual. But the 12-term legislator said he’s never seen anything quite like this year. Nornes compares it to a split over religion.

"Two Lutherans can disagree on a few things. And they'd be passionate about it," said Nornes, who thinks the two sides in this dispute should either come together or go their separate ways.

He supports Rasmusson’s candidacy and said he’s tried to play peacemaker with some of Miller’s supporters.

“Just to kind of convince them that this has gone far enough, you’ve made your point, whatever that is,” said Nornes, who isn’t sure if those conversations made any difference.

"For some, we'll probably never get them to say ‘OK, I guess I'm with the whole team.’" he said.

a man poses in front of a political sign
Minnesota Senate District 9 DFL candidate Cornel Walker poses for a photo at the DFL Party office in Fergus Falls, Minn., on Oct 20.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The DFL candidate in the race is watching this dispute with interest. Cornel Walker knows his chances are slim in this very red district, although he admits to thinking about how a Republican split could give him a shot.

Walker said he’s not talking to voters about the Republican fight , but he believes he has a message that's resonating with voters.

"Compromise, compromise, compromise. It used to be a good word,” said Walker. “And for some reason, it's become a bad and evil word, man. I want us to get back to the art of compromise, because it is an art."

Nathan Miller insists he won't compromise his beliefs, and he and his supporters aren't going away. He doesn't want to burn down the Republican Party, he said, but uses words like revolution and revival when he talks about how he hopes to change the party.

"The sacred cause of liberty, the flame will start now and hopefully we can fan it up out here in Senate District 9," he said.

And that will likely mean more headaches for Republican Party leaders.