Politics and Government

Sharply contrasted GOP candidates vie for Senate nod against Klobuchar

Two men in separate pictures
Delegates to the Republican state convention endorsed Royce White (left). Some prominent party figures instead prefer Joe Fraser.
Courtesy phot and Clay Masters | MPR News

Republicans in Minnesota know it’s a tall order to defeat Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar in November and they are grappling with whether to go with a brash nominee with a knotty past or a traditional option who hasn’t been able to stir the grassroots.

August’s primary, which includes eight Republican choices overall, will determine who will advance to the general election and try to deny Klobuchar a fourth term that would be rare for Minnesota. Klobuchar is heavily favored in a DFL primary that has five candidates on the ballot.

Delegates to the Republican state convention endorsed Royce White, who has a bare-knuckle style but a raft of personal problems and off-color commentary that could turn off voters. Some prominent party figures instead prefer Joe Fraser, a more-staid candidate who filed for the August primary despite previously saying he’d honor the convention endorsement.

The party’s seal of approval is with White given his endorsement.

“I’ve told people if you went to central casting and said pick me out a Republican candidate for Senate, it would not have been Royce White,” said Republican Party Chair David Hann, who appeared in an early June social media post from the party shaking White’s hand and urging volunteers to “help Royce and our other endorsed candidates.”

White’s convention victory in May came despite his background that includes failure to pay child support, pleading guilty to disorderly conduct and questionable spending of campaign money in a previous run for Congress — red flags that usually trip up candidates.

Crowd under American flag
The Minnesota Republican Party convention at the St. Paul RiverCentre on May 7.
Matthew Alvarez | MPR News

White has dismissed concerns about his past and, at the state convention, said this of the Republican party’s decision to qualify his candidacy with “reservations.”

“The same reservations they had about me would surely fall on Donald Trump as well if he was running in this race,” White said to delegates’ applause.

White frames his campaign as about strengthening the nation’s borders, addressing the national debt and ending what he calls “forever wars.” As an African American who grew up in the metro area, he says he can bring more people of color into the Republican fold. 

Rally at Federal Reserve

But his penchant for name calling, crude language and controversial statements are what’s got him attention. 

On his podcast last month, for instance, White slammed what he claims are identity politics taking over the government, whether they’re promoting gender, sexuality or anything else.

“I want to be very clear here: Liberals in this country are the modern-day Nazis,” White said. “They were the working class that became the bourgeoisie. And then they unionized. And then they created a police state to sort of solidify their power base politically.”

He’s also faced scrutiny for feeding into antisemitic tropes and making other remarks offensive about Jewish people. 

On Thursday, White told a couple dozen supporters at a campaign rally outside the Minneapolis Federal Reserve that he’d been accused of dog whistling for holding events outside a space where many “Jewish elites” work. The full remark is a confusing thought chain that condemns killing of Jews, ties in U.S. aid to Ukraine and mentions slavery.

A man points and yells.
Republican candidate for Senate Royce White argues with demonstrators outside the Republican State Convention before former President Donald Trump's remarks at Rivercenter in St. Paul, Minnesota on May 17.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

It’s not the first time he has used offensive tropes about Jewish people. In social media posts and podcast episodes, he has made similar comments and defined himself as an antisemite in a since-deleted Twitter bio.

Fraser’s campaign condemned White’s remarks as antisemitic and said that the Republican Party should call out the comments.

“After years of parroting anti-Jewish rhetoric, even going so far as condemning the United States for defeating Hitler in WWII, Royce White’s abhorrent rhetoric is no different than that espoused by Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib,” Fraser’s campaign manager Taylor Maddox said Friday. 

“If we as a party can condemn Democrats for putting our Jewish brothers and sisters in harm's way, then we should be equally ready to do the same when Royce White says it too,” he continued. 

Anna Mathews, executive director for the Minnesota Republican Party, in a statement said, "The party has always condemned antisemitism in all its forms, and our position is still that we disavow antisemitism and any inference of it."

In a social media post, White circulated a longer version of his remarks and defended himself as being taken out of context and a victim of “yellow journalism.”

Some surprises

In recent weeks, White declined through his campaign media contact to speak with MPR News unless a reporter agreed to conditions that fall outside of our standard practices.

White’s supporters cheer on his unconventional background, and others are willing to look past it.

GOP Chair Hann said in an interview last month that White might have appeal in places Republicans usually don’t, including among big-city voters. He’s confident White can give Klobuchar a spirited challenge and connect Minnesotans who typically don’t vote Republican.

He said White could appeal to “voters who are independent maybe in nature and not committed to either side. [White] is presenting a different perspective on what Republicans are about,” Hann said. “I think that there may be some surprises along the way.”

Other Republicans have serious misgivings and are backing Fraser, a Navy veteran and business executive stressing national defense and fiscal restraint. 

But Fraser failed to catch steam with party activists and lost to White at the convention. He is running in the August primary despite previously saying he'd exit if bypassed for the endorsement.

Fraser calls White “unelectable” and fears he’ll hurt other GOP candidates on the ballot.

“The guy has a train of baggage that follows him and the Democrats are going to use everything that Royce has done to pull not just his candidacy down but also pull down all the other opportunities that we have in the state of Minnesota,” Fraser said in an interview with MPR News.

‘Neocon Joe’

White has hit back at Fraser. A Forum Communications reporter posted a video Thursday of White referring to Fraser with an expletive and labeling him “neocon Joe,” referring to neoconservativism.

“He’s a typical run of the mill straight-out-of-central-casting neocon. He’s 100 percent in for the Ukraine war. And when you listen to everything he says, it’s all basic Republican talking points,” White said.

A man smiles while getting his portrait taken
Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota, takes a portrait in the Kling Public Media Center in St. Paul on June 25.
Nikhil Kumaran | MPR News

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former U.S. Sens. Norm Coleman and Rudy Boschwitz support Fraser.

“We need the strongest candidate possible,” said Pawlenty. “Of the two Republicans that are running in the primary, in my view Fraser is the much stronger candidate.”

Pawlenty, whose victory in 2006 makes him still the last Republican to win statewide, said Fraser has the “experience, judgment, knowledge [and] temperament to serve Minnesota well.” Pawlenty said White does not.

University of Minnesota political science professor Kathryn Pearson agreed White could backfire for Republicans.

“The problem is Republicans didn’t do a lot of deep investigations into some of the things that White has said — his campaign finance records, child payment problems, all sorts of different issues that are now coming up and making him a weaker candidate than perhaps they had originally thought,” Pearson said.

Primary turnout is expected to be low. But many more Republicans will weigh in on the Senate contest than did at the state convention. Voting in the race began in late June and will continue through Aug. 13.

Neither candidate is well-positioned to keep step with Klobuchar after the primary. The most recent campaign fundraising reports showed the incumbent had about $5.8 million available to spend as of this spring; Fraser and White had $44,000 and $10,000 respectively. 

A new batch of fundraising reports are due soon.

Klobuchar has faced little difficulty in her prior three runs winning the seat in 2006 against a sitting congressman by more than 20 percentage points and earning reelection twice with even larger margins.

MPR News senior politics reporter Dana Ferguson contributed to this story.