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They blocked a staunchly conservative congresswoman from winning the Minnesota GOP's endorsement and propelled a former NBA player with a controversial past to a surprising endorsement victory.

And at last month's state GOP convention, anti-establishment conservatives ordered party leaders to write a letter of support for people charged in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

The anti-establishment wing of Minnesota's Republican Party has notched a string of notable victories recently, to the dismay of traditional conservatives who worry the so-called "grassroots" activists are undermining the GOP's chances of winning in November. The defiant activists have rejected traditional candidates in favor of uncompromising newcomers whom they believe will challenge the status quo.

"I think there's a lot of people who are upset with just kind of doing the same old, same old, over and over again, like we've been doing for the past decade," said former GOP gubernatorial candidate Mike Murphy, who's aligned with the grassroots activists. "It's definitely time to change that."

At the state GOP convention, grassroots activists hoisted signs saying, "The people are coming," as they celebrated the endorsement of U.S. Senate candidate Royce White, a former basketball player who promotes conspiracy theories and has a history of legal and campaign finance issues. Most activists at the convention backed White over former Naval intelligence officer Joe Fraser, who has decided to push forward and challenge White in an August primary election.

Tayler Rahm talks to supporters in April during a Senate District 56 GOP Pints and Politics fundraiser at Cowboy Jacks in Apple Valley.
Tayler Rahm talks to supporters in April during a Senate District 56 GOP Pints and Politics fundraiser at Cowboy Jacks in Apple Valley.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

A month earlier, grassroots activists in the southeast suburbs endorsed conservative attorney Tayler Rahm's campaign for Congress instead of former federal prosecutor Joe Teirab, who had raised significantly more money. Teirab also intends to challenge Rahm in August.

"The grassroots support for my campaign has been fantastic. It's played a huge role in the success I've had," Rahm said in an interview. "They've had enough of ... D.C. pumping a candidate full of money and saying, 'well, you have to support this candidate.'"

In deep-red western Minnesota, anti-establishment activists rallied behind political newcomer Steve Boyd, a Christian constitutionalist and small businessman, and blocked U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach from winning the GOP's endorsement. The activists view the longtime-politician Fischbach as a political insider, even though she has one of the most conservative voting records in Congress and is endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

Boyd asserts that he would be more of a hardliner, interested in aligning with the highly conservative House Freedom Caucus and willing to shut down the government to fix the border crisis.

Some longtime Republicans said they aren't worried about Fischbach, whom they believe will defeat Boyd in August and hang on to her seat.

They're more concerned about the electability of White and Rahm should the two candidates win their August primaries and move on to the general election. They think White is too weak a candidate to defeat Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and that Rahm is too conservative to win against Democratic U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, a moderate who's represented her suburban swing district for five years now.

"People would rather make a statement in the battle rather than win the war," longtime Republican Tommy Merickel said of the endorsements made by rebellious activists. "We're picking the candidate that we like the most, but just because we like them doesn't mean that they're the best candidate to win in the general."

Steve Boyd, who is running against Michelle Fischbach in Minnesota’s 7th congressional district, hosted an event on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol with an airing of the Epoch Times documentary.
Steve Boyd, who is running against Michelle Fischbach in Minnesota’s 7th congressional district, hosted an event on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol with an airing of the Epoch Times documentary.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Merickel and some other Republicans want the Minnesota GOP to get rid of endorsing conventions that allow a small number of party activists to influence the process. They would rather see GOP candidates go straight to primary elections where more voters weigh in.

Anti-establishment activists, once on the fringes of the party, dominated much of the discussion at last month's state GOP convention. Beyond helping White pull off a surprise endorsement win, the activists berated Minnesota GOP leaders for invalidating a group of delegates from Otter Tail County, and they successfully motioned for the party to write a letter in support of Jan. 6 riot defendants.

Minnesota GOP deputy chair Donna Bergstrom said in a text message that the party is working on that letter, which will "inquire into the January 6 progress of the persons incarcerated without trial dates."

"The resolution will be presented to Whip [Tom] Emmer to provide to Speaker [Mike] Johnson asking when the investigation will begin and to include a way to inform the families of the incarcerated that they are not forgotten," Bergstrom said.

Former GOP state Sen. Michelle Benson said she was frustrated that activists at the state convention spent time on matters that "aren't going to help us get Republicans elected."

"I think those distractions will continue to hurt the party until something changes and delegates decide that winning elections has to be the highest priority," Benson said. Republicans haven't won a statewide election in Minnesota since 2006.

Both Benson and Merickel said some longtime Republicans aren't showing up to party conventions anymore because they are tired of fighting with other activists. That gives the anti-establishment wing an opportunity to exert more influence.

"It literally gives a minority of people a majority position," Merickel said.

Grassroots conservatives say their recent victories shouldn't be downplayed, and that the preferences of Republican voters are changing.

Conservatives in Minnesota are increasingly looking for candidates whom they can relate to, said Rahm, who grew up in the district he's running in. They're tired of candidates backed by big donors who aren't willing to shake up the system, he said.

Murphy, the former GOP gubernatorial candidate, believes candidates like Rahm, White and Boyd have successfully tapped into that sentiment.

"People want a homegrown candidate, somebody who knows where the best restaurant is and the corner bar," Murphy said. "People are tired of the candidates with the long résumé and that certain pedigree, and they just want regular folks to represent them."

Murphy argues that power within the Minnesota GOP should come from the bottom up, not the top down. He said party leaders aren't taking grassroots activists seriously enough, and that he hopes to change that by running for state GOP chair later this year.

"We have to have somebody in that position that is vocal … that can go out and speak to both sides of the aisle and also to different factions that are within the Republican Party," Murphy said. "I think for too long, we've kept the door closed on the grassroots."