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Earlier this month, a group of local Republicans in a small town in western Minnesota stopped dozens of their fellow conservatives from entering a local political convention — a punishment for supporting someone other than the GOP nominee in the last general election.

The Otter Tail County Sheriff's Office was called in to clear the 33 suspended individuals from blocking the hallways at a venue in Ottertail, where they stood for hours waiting to be let in.

It was the culmination of a bitter feud over a state Senate race in deep-red western Minnesota that has stretched on for more than a year and has included allegations of fraud and harassment. It's also a microcosm of the intraparty turmoil that has been building in greater Minnesota and across the country between more traditional Republicans and newcomers to the party, who were brought in through Donald Trump's presidency and anger over COVID-19 mandates.

"Lots of county Republican parties were swamped with new people a year ago. They were elected delegates," said Jay Duggan, who helps run Rocks and Cows, a Facebook page that tries to get conservatives to be active in politics in greater Minnesota. "If you want something changed, if you want something to be different, you have to get more involved. They got more involved everywhere."

There were more than two dozen GOP primary battles last summer for legislative seats, and in some cases new activists successfully challenged Republican incumbents for their endorsements. In the general election, conservatives challenged Republicans as write-in candidates in several districts. One such candidate in Clay County is being sued by the state GOP for allegedly misrepresenting himself as the party chair.

Duggan pointed to the GOP gubernatorial endorsement of Scott Jensen — a physician who rose to prominence through skepticism about COVID mandates — as a result of the new group that is active in state party politics.

In many races, insurgent candidates lost. But nowhere has the feud raged on as long as it has in Otter Tail County, where a divide among activists reached a new level of intensity in 2022.

A group of conservatives in the county banded together behind a new candidate for a local state Senate seat, Nathan Miller, who alleged that manipulated delegate counts led him to lose the endorsement to then-state Rep. Jordan Rasmusson. Local GOP officials said any delegate issues were corrected and cleared by the state party, and Rasmusson won the endorsement on the first ballot.

Miller, who said he originally entered the race because he didn't believe Rasmusson was conservative enough for the deep-red district, continued on to a GOP primary, which Rasmusson won by 353 votes out of more than 11,000 ballots cast. Miller said in an email that he decided to mount a write-in campaign because of ongoing concerns about the caucus delegate process.

"I did not believe it would ever be sorted out if I didn't continue to push forward," he said.

The campaign was acrimonious, with allegations of harassment and damaged campaign materials. The Republican Party of Minnesota filed a complaint against Miller alleging he was misrepresenting himself as the Republican candidate. Some local activists posted on social media that they wrote in Miller or supported a third-party candidate over Rasmusson and other Republican candidates on the ballot.

Local party officials suspended those individuals from the convention this month — a party meeting to conduct routine, nonelection year business — for supporting someone other than the nominee in the general election.

"At the Otter Tail County convention, the delegates voted not to seat a group that had worked against Republican endorsed candidates and general election nominees," said Michael Lonergan, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Minnesota, which was consulted by county GOP officials. "These sorts of procedural matters are well within local party units' authority and are fairly routine."

Marcia Huddleston, a local Republican delegate, said she was held in a hallway for two hours waiting to be seated at the convention but was never allowed in. She said she supported a third party in the fall election and now can't represent her community in local party politics.

"Where in America can one be punished for how they vote in a general — secret ballot — election? Otter Tail County," she said.

Miller was among those suspended.

"These are grassroots hardworking people who do the dirty work of knocking [on] doors, working fairs' booths, walking parades. [These] true foot soldiers ... do not deserve this kind of treatment," Miller said in an email.

The group was a fraction of the more than 400 delegates and alternates in the Otter Tail County Republican Party, whose chair said they're in a better position going forward.

"There's no time or place for disruptions and threats to the party, its candidates, officers, volunteers and our families," Otter Tail County GOP chair Ben Anderson wrote in a statement. "We had a successful county convention despite efforts to disrupt it by opposition groups and third-party campaigns."

Duggan said tensions are ongoing and conservatives might start to break away from party organizations in some counties, running their own candidates and forming third parties.

"The Republican Party will probably split in two, and you'd have three parties running. In Otter Tail it wouldn't make a difference, but there are a lot of places ... that would probably go Democrat if the Republican Party split in half."

Michael Brodkorb, a former deputy chair of the Republican Party, said it's reasonable to suspend individuals from holding local party positions if they work against the GOP's-nominated candidates. But he noted that the ongoing divide is a distraction for a party that needs to be unified after losing any foothold in state government in the last election.

"Republicans are really trying to find where their soul is, where their base is, where their compass is so they can really start rowing in the same direction," Brodkorb said.

Rasmusson said he won in the fall because he listened to voters in his district who responded to his message on returning the state budget surplus to taxpayers. He sees the DFL's one-party control as a unifying factor heading into 2024: "Democrats' radical, unchecked agenda in St. Paul has unified Republicans who want to win elections and get Minnesota on the right track."