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New Minnesota GOP chair aims to bring metro, rural factions together

BRAINERD, Minn.—The woman newly in charge of the Republican Party hopes to mend fences between the rural conservatives and the metro GOP headquarters.

Elected in April to head the Minnesota GOP, Jennifer Carnahan owns several businesses in Nisswa and lives in the Twin Cities metro. Her family also has a cabin in the Brainerd area, which she's been visiting since childhood.

Her dual experience may serve to help repair the relationship between the 8th Congressional District GOP and the state party.

Jennifer CarnahanIn the most recent example of the rift, Carnahan's predecessor, Keith Downey, was excoriated by 8th District GOP Chair Ted Lovdahl when Downey criticized then-candidate for chair Chris Fields, a conservative firebrand.

"Downey's top-down, secretive and frequently manipulative management style has been controversial among many Republicans from day one," Lovdahl wrote to the party's nominations committee, as quoted by the Pioneer Press. "It is the view of the CD8 Executive Board that in certainly most, if not all, controversies between Downey and Fields, it was Fields who best represented the views and interests of rural conservatives, CD8 and the Minnesota State GOP."

Now, however, there's a new sheriff in town, Carnahan emphasized.

"Maybe there was some discord between previous leadership at the state party and the leadership in the 8th Congressional District," she said. "But I'm a new leader. And David Pascoe, our new deputy chair, he's also a new leader. So, we're a new team. I feel like we come in fresh."

To help build a bridge to the 8th, Carnahan said, she's planning on having the Minnesota GOP's next State Central Committee meeting somewhere in the Brainerd lakes area. Whether or not the party's governing body meeting happens near Brainerd depends on the availability of space, Carnahan said.

Carnahan said her first month as chair has consisted of getting the right political operatives working in the right areas, forging connections between the donor network, and planning for the 2018 election

As to whether a potential 2018 gubernatorial candidate for the Republicans should be either from the rural parts of Minnesota or from the Twin Cities metro, Carnahan said the distinction was not important.

"I feel like that's played out a little bit in Minnesota lately, like people keep talking about 'rural vs. metro,'" she said. "Me being someone who has a ... lake home in the Brainerd lakes area, but then I live in Minneapolis, I understand both, I feel like I fit into both communities very well. I never view it as one versus the other. I mean, people are people."

Asked to outline the party's 2018 strategy, Carnahan focused on the 2nd and 3rd Congressional Districts in the Twin Cities metro, held by Republican U.S. Reps. Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen, respectively.

She was interviewed while attending a fundraiser Friday for Lewis at Gull Dam Brewing.

It was important for the GOP to both hold those congressional seats and take over new seats on other levels of government in those geographic areas of the state, Carnahan said. It was also important to maintain a connection with rural voters at the same time as inroads were made into the metro area, she said.

The upcoming governor's race centers on correct placement of victory centers throughout the state, Carnahan said. The locations of where the GOP put the victory centers would be based on results from the 2016 election as well as 2014, the last statewide election. The party would also examine whether there were any major demographic shifts, she said, but she added there weren't any that worried her. Demographics in 2018 would largely be similar to those that were in effect during the 2016 election.

However, she added there's a broader demographic shift of people being concentrated in the metro, as exemplified by the fact that Hillary Clinton got her Minnesota victory in the 2016 race based on voters mostly from just those metro areas like Hennepin and Ramsey counties, while greater Minnesota largely went for Donald Trump.

"Those aren't areas we can ignore anymore, but we also need to make sure we're focusing on growing our gains in greater Minnesota," she said.

The trend of aging and declining population in greater Minnesota, bastion of Republicans, did not worry Carnahan, she said. There's a straightforward strategy to counteract the trend.

"We need to start appealing to younger generations, like millennials," she said.

To target the younger generations, Republicans need to refine their message based on voters' personal experiences as opposed to broadly evangelizing, Carnahan said.

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