See more of the story

In deep-red western Minnesota, a group of conservative activists have spent years crusading against their main political foe — other Republicans.

Calling themselves the Otter Tail County Grassroots, the activists have consistently clashed with the local party over endorsements, alleging fraud when one of their preferred candidates lost and casting protest votes against GOP nominees. The bitter feud escalated earlier this year when the grassroots activists took over the Otter Tail GOP party's precinct caucuses that drew hundreds of people in two cities, kicking out the people who led the proceedings so they could run things their own way and pick delegates who will endorse candidates.

This month, they defied the party again by hosting their own unsanctioned political convention.

The state Republican Party has had to step in and act as a referee, further angering activists who have enlisted GOP legislators from the region and beyond to aid their cause.

"It seems that the Republican Party in Minnesota here has decided that the best way to put a path forward is to really alienate part of what has been the traditional base of the Republican Party, jettisoning the social conservatives … and trying to move the party to a more center position," said Andy Bradrick, a former Otter Tail County GOP chair who has aligned with the grassroots activists.

Tensions playing out in these rural communities mirror those in conservative politics nationwide, as anti-establishment activists try to reshape the Republican Party from the bottom up. Longtime Republicans worry the infighting is driving people away from politics and distracting from the party's goal of winning back the state House this fall.

"It has percolated to the point where it's garnered statewide attention and it shows a challenge across Minnesota," said Harry Merickel, a longtime Republican in Otter Tail County who is involved with the local party.

"There has been a rise in this idea of: We don't really care about presenting a message, we don't care about supporting candidates. They are crusaders and whatever their cause is at the time, they fight that enemy instead of being about a broader set of ideals."

Minnesota GOP chairman David Hann said the grassroots activists violated party procedures and caucus-related laws when they took over the Otter Tail County Republican Party's precinct caucuses.
Minnesota GOP chairman David Hann said the grassroots activists violated party procedures and caucus-related laws when they took over the Otter Tail County Republican Party's precinct caucuses.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Divisive precinct caucuses

Tensions between conservative activists and party officials in Otter Tail County date back to the 2020 battle for the endorsement in western Minnesota's Seventh District, a race that's once again at the center of disputes between the two groups.

Many of the Otter Tail County activists are attempting to become party delegates so they can support GOP newcomer Steve Boyd at an endorsing convention over incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach, whom they consider a political insider.

The activists sought to personally oversee delegate selections when they took over the two Otter Tail County precinct caucuses in February. But it didn't go smoothly.

The state Republican Party intervened afterward, concluding the activists violated party procedures and caucus-related laws, and deemed their chosen delegates invalid.

"They decided they didn't trust the Otter Tail board to conduct caucuses and they essentially took over. And that created some problems," Minnesota GOP Chair David Hann said in a recent podcast recapping the conflict. "The procedures that we have and the state laws that govern how caucuses are conducted were not followed."

Tommy Merickel, a state delegate and member of the Otter Tail County Republican Party, was one of the caucus leaders who was removed by the activists. It wasn't his first run-in with the grassroots activists, whom he said are not interested in abiding by the state party's rules.

The Otter Tail County Republican Party had to close its regular meetings to the public because some of the activists would show up to threaten members, said Merickel, who's Harry's father.

"It's not civil dialogue. It's yelling and screaming. Literally, I've had people come up to me ... nose to nose, as loud as they can screaming," he said. "Other people were handed notes of physical violent threats to them."

Merickel said he expects "the circus will continue" at the Seventh Congressional District's endorsing convention on April 27. He thinks the grassroots activists will try to rally support to get their invalidated delegates reinstated.

The grassroots group characterizes its feud with the party differently.

In a letter to the state party last month, they acknowledged the caucuses were "initially confrontational" but argued their caucus elections were legitimate and accused the state party of trying to disenfranchise the delegates they selected.

"They're in essence trying to control the process and pick winners and losers and are really refusing to acknowledge what was determined by the election process," Bradrick said.

The grassroots activists have been rallying conservative state lawmakers and other county Republican units to their side in hopes of pressuring the Minnesota GOP to reinstate their delegates. The Otter Tail Republican Party currently plans to use its 2022 delegates at this year's endorsing convention, as was recommended by a special committee.

That decision could affect the GOP primary race between Fischbach and Boyd. Bradrick said there are more Boyd supporters among the invalidated delegates than in the 2022 delegation.

Boyd recently sent a letter to the state party urging it to certify the new delegates. In an interview, Boyd said he's spent a lot of time campaigning in Otter Tail County and estimated that most, if not all, of the newer delegates would endorse him.

"You can't ignore the fact that it has a huge bearing on this race, and the powers that be maybe don't want that to happen," Boyd said.

A group huddled in prayer during a town hall event in Fergus Falls on Jan. 6, 2024. Steve Boyd, who is running against Michelle Fischbach in Minnesota’s Seventh Congressional District, hosted the event on the anniversary of the Jan....
A group huddled in prayer during a town hall event in Fergus Falls on Jan. 6, 2024. Steve Boyd, who is running against Michelle Fischbach in Minnesota’s Seventh Congressional District, hosted the event on the anniversary of the Jan....

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Broken trust

Activists and Republican Party officials have clashed in other races as well, including an acrimonious internal battle for an Otter Tail state Senate seat in 2022 between Republican Sen. Jordan Rasmusson and conservative newcomer Nathan Miller.

Miller and his supporters alleged that manipulated delegate counts led him to lose the endorsement to Rasmusson. Local party officials said any issues were resolved and Rasmusson went on to narrowly win a primary election. But Miller mounted a write-in campaign against him in the general election because of ongoing concerns about the caucus delegate process.

The following spring, conservative activists who supported Miller or candidates other than the Republican nominee in several races on the November ballot were barred from entering a local GOP party meeting.

Moments like these have become the norm in conservative politics in the county. They've caught the attention of far-right groups such as Action 4 Liberty, which raised money to travel to Otter Tail County to support the activists and antagonize the party.

The climate has created a situation where some people are stepping away from politics altogether. Former Otter Tail GOP Chair Ben Anderson left the role earlier this year because of the ongoing turmoil.

Eric Yancy, who got involved in local GOP politics in 2020, attended one of the precinct caucuses that was in dispute. He brought friends from church to attend caucuses for the first time. Several of them told him they won't be back.

"When I got involved, I thought it was going to be exciting and fun and it turned out to be not that way," he said. "I had some folks from my church come to the caucus and to be delegates and alternates and they said, 'This is crazy,' and they got up and left because of the craziness."

Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, signed on to a letter with more than a dozen other House Republicans calling to validate the delegates that activists picked in February, which has frustrated members of the local party. The Otter Tail County GOP voted this week to rescind a $12,000 donation to the House Republicans' campaign committee.

Backer acknowledged trust is broken between the two sides but said they have more "similarities than differences" and need to come together to turn out the vote in the west-central part of the state.

"It's so important for us in greater Minnesota to get out the conservative vote to run up the score, just like what's done in Hennepin and Ramsey counties for the other side," he said. "I'm hearing more and more from both sides that we have to find a way forward."

But Republicans like Harry Merickel don't know where this all leads. He's been involved in Republican Party politics in the community since he was old enough to walk in parades and start knocking on doors. His late grandfather was a longtime legislator representing central Minnesota.

Lately, he has been distancing himself from the work, fearing the controversy is taking over the debate over ideas and efforts to fundraise and help Republicans take back power in the Minnesota House this fall.

"I've come to believe there is a big tent of ideas that the Republican Party should have, but there needs to be a common set of expectations on behavior," said Harry Merickel. "Right now, it's personality and behavior that's superseding principle. It's hindering us from debating ideas."