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FERGUS FALLS — Republicans from around the region packed into this campaign event at a VFW post here earlier this year as Steve Boyd strode into the banquet hall. Before Boyd took the stage to introduce a Minnesota family facing federal charges related to Jan. 6, he spoke about why he was mounting a primary challenge against a Republican incumbent in Minnesota's most solidly conservative district — a challenge that has ruffled some establishment feathers in the party.

It wasn't that Boyd has many major policy disagreements with U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach, he said. Fischbach, first elected in 2020 in western Minnesota's Seventh Congressional district, consistently has had the most conservative voting record in Minnesota's delegation and is among the most conservative in Congress, voting against former president Donald Trump's second impeachment and against an independent panel to investigate Jan. 6. She recently garnered Trump's endorsement.

Instead, Boyd, a 38-year-old small business owner from Kensington, said he's running for his first political office because he believes the GOP and Congress need more outside voices. Boyd believes Fischbach, who served in the Minnesota Senate for more than two decades before briefly serving as lieutenant governor, is too "legislation-driven," too much of a political insider, not focused enough on cultural change.

"We have politicians who come and say, 'Give me your money, your vote; I'm going to take care of it,'" Boyd said. "I don't know too many politicians, especially on the federal level, that are looking people in the eye and saying there's no quick fix. That it's going to take a while, and it's going to take you doing the work, too. It's not just me."

Boyd said he plans to continue running through the August primary, even if he doesn't get party backing at this weekend's endorsing convention. Fischbach's campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment, though a Fischbach campaign email to convention delegates confirmed she recently rescinded her pledge to abide by the endorsement.

"Despite having every opportunity to respect our party's process, our traditions, and the opinions of grassroots delegates, Steve Boyd is defying the endorsement and forcing a primary election," Norann Dillon, executive director of Fischbach for Congress, wrote in the email. "For a contest to be fair, all sides follow the same set of rules."

Boyd follows in the footsteps of the persistent anti-establishment strain in the Republican Party. That strain slowly gained traction for decades: think Ronald Reagan calling government the problem, or Pat Buchanan challenging George H. W. Bush. Trump's election in 2016 and takeover of the party solidified the pull of outsider status as a defining trait in today's GOP.

Steven Schier, political science professor at Carleton College, says Trump created a new path for candidates with little or no political experience, though he questions whether that's a good thing.

"There's a lot of energy aimed at the party establishment that the party establishment wants aimed at Democrats. That's a big problem for the party. You do have to play the game," Schier said. "And if you decide all of that is so despicable and it needs to be overturned, you're handing a very promising issue to your rival party — that this is the party that can't govern, can't govern itself, can't govern any other institutions."

Rural district with anti-establishment streak

The sprawling Seventh District spans the western half of the state, covering more than a third of Minnesota by land mass from the Canadian border almost to Iowa. All or parts of 38 counties make up one of the nation's top-producing agricultural districts.

Boyd's resume appears custom-fit for this district's rural, agriculture-minded conservatives: He's the son of a Seventh Day Adventist pastor. He was home-schooled, meeting his wife through their home-school network. They have five kids, three of them adopted. He owns Boyd Lawn Co., which mostly does fertilizer and weed control in west-central Minnesota; he used to have eight employees, but now it's just him. He's studied the U.S. Constitution through classes with the conservative Hillsdale College and Patriot Academy.

David Sturrock, a professor of political science at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall who has long been active in the local Republican Party, sees how rural Minnesotans' feeling of being ignored by the Twin Cities can sow mistrust in the establishment.

"It gives an opportunity for a challenger to raise the issue of whether we're being represented," Sturrock said. "Boyd will attract the type of Republican who is unhappy with the way things work in Washington."

Boyd's primary challenge hasn't risen to average voters' consciousness, Sturrock said, though party activists have been abuzz about it.

One reason is the recent delegate controversy in Otter Tail County.

Jake Duesenberg, founder of the Minnesota-based conservative organization Action 4 Liberty and host of the Truth Hurts Show on Rumble, has focused on the race since Minnesota GOP chairman David Hann invalidated the grassroots delegates chosen in Otter Tail County's two precinct caucuses, saying they didn't follow party procedures and caucus-related laws. Duesenberg believes that was designed to harm Boyd's chance of winning the endorsement, since Boyd looked like he was going to win all of the county's delegates — which make up about 10% of the convention delegates.

"From what we can tell, Boyd is doing well and possibly will win the endorsement," Duesenberg wrote in an email. "This story reeks of political corruption!"

Boyd's political positions are fairly standard among Republicans in 2024: He believes the Justice Department has been weaponized against Trump and against people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. He worries about election integrity. He opposes how quickly the COVID vaccine was rushed to market. He is a Trump supporter, though he believes Trump has moved too far to the center on abortion.

If he were elected to the House, Boyd said he would align with the House Freedom Caucus, the institution's most conservative bloc. He sees himself more akin to Rep. Chip Roy than Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene — not a disruptor, but unwavering in Christian constitutionalist principles.

"I'm unmoved in my principles, but I'm not super loud about it," Boyd said.

Annette Watson, a Christian conservative from Morris who home-schools her five children, is also running for the seat, though she says she'll throw her support behind whoever gets the endorsement. Currently studying for her doctorate at Liberty University, Watson said she'll bring a foreign-policy focus, specifically about evening the playing field with China.

What she saw as America's totalitarian shift during the COVID-19 pandemic was her political wake-up call.

"I want a vocal representative saying the hard things," Watson said of Fischbach.

Can outsiders be effective?

While the feisty, Trump-inspired outsider-ness has plenty of fans in the Republican Party, some political experts caution lifting that up over experience.

"I don't think Congress runs unless there are people around who know how to run it," said Kevin Parsneau, a government professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

For Boyd and others aligned with him, standing on principle is the most important thing.

If he were in office, for example, he says he would have been willing to shut down the government to fix the border crisis. Politics, he said, should be more about standing on principle and changing the culture than simply winning election and passing laws.

"More government legislation, more laws, more regulations — I don't think it's taking us anywhere in the right direction, left or right," Boyd said. "My goal would be to do politics a different way and run in a manner that engages more people in the process. Don't just work the numbers so we win. Stand on principle."

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described the situation at the Otter Tail County precinct caucuses. Minnesota GOP Chair David Hann deemed the grassroots delegates invalid.