A few years before she went into politics, Jennifer Carnahan, chairwoman of the Minnesota Republican Party, said she was nearly cast on the long-running TV show "Survivor."
She didn't make the final cut, Carnahan said, but the backstabbing dramas of reality TV would have been good practice for the shifting alliances and rivalries of the state GOP she is now fighting to lead for another two years.
"It seems like the long knives are out," Carnahan said this week as allegations and attacks swirled around her ahead of the party leadership election this Saturday. Facing a challenge from Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch, Carnahan in recent days has been embroiled in a public feud with two of the party's other top officials.
"Jennifer uses fear to intimidate and silence her opponents," Barb Sutter, Minnesota's Republican national committeewoman, wrote in a March 31 e-mail to roughly 340 party activists eligible to vote in Saturday's leadership elections.
The race pits Carnahan, a small-business owner and St. Louis Park resident, against Koran, a legislator and former state employee. Whoever wins will lead a party struggling to break a 15-year losing streak in statewide elections and contending with fallout from President Donald Trump's loss.
Carnahan and Koran differ little on the issues: both are ardent Trump supporters, offering no pushback to false claims of a rigged election, and both are highly critical of Democratic Gov. Tim Walz's pandemic response.
But their contest has been fierce. Koran and allies accuse Carnahan of a lack of financial oversight and using party resources to improve her re-election chances, both of which she denies. Carnahan questioned Koran's integrity, and her supporters argue it's a conflict for a politician in public office to also lead the state party. "None of this is personal, but she's chosen to take it personally," Koran said.
"Politics is filled with people with sharp elbows," said Carleton Crawford, a Minneapolis architect and the party's deputy chairman. He's backing Carnahan because he credits her with the near-elimination of debts that hobbled the party most of the last decade.
"She put the party back on stable ground. She's got good relationships with the major donors," said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, who didn't support Carnahan's first bid four years ago but does this time.
Three Minnesotans are voting members of the Republican National Committee: Carnahan, Sutter and National Committeeman Max Rymer. Last month, Rymer wrote a lengthy e-mail, widely circulated among party activists, accusing Carnahan of "prolonged financial negligence" over a contract between the state party and a digital fundraising vendor last year.
Nearly half of donations raised through the program went back to the vendor, Rymer alleged. Party Treasurer Mark Blaxill said in a memo in response that Rymer was incorrectly characterizing the issue, that the issues were minor and quickly corrected.
Carnahan retaliated, Rymer wrote, by criticizing him directly to Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. She "impugned my character" and "told explicit falsehoods," he wrote.
Sutter and Rymer declined further comment. The Republican National Committee's press office did not respond to a request for comment.
"Sadly, Mr. Rymer has made defamatory accusations in an attempt to tarnish my reputation, and that of the MNGOP and one of our vendors, as have other past party officers and supporters of my opponent's campaign," Carnahan said.
Other party leaders have aired similar critiques of Carnahan.
"I've seen some fights within the party that I just didn't think were necessary, and over time I've just seen that she seems to be involved in a lot of them," said Gary Steuart, the party's First Congressional District chairman and a longtime donor to southern Minnesota's U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, Carnahan's husband.
Crawford, the deputy chairman, said he views the attacks against Carnahan as personality-based. "I think it's about something other than her job performance," he said.
Carnahan, 44, was born in South Korea in 1976. She was adopted in April 1977 and brought to the U.S. by a Maple Grove couple. She later learned she was left as an infant on the doorstep of a rural hospital.
"She's tough. You're not going to pull anything over on Jennifer," said her mother, Cindy Carnahan. "She's been a joy but she's been a challenge," she said, recalling a call from Jennifer's kindergarten teacher describing how the girl would read the newspaper to her entire class.
Carnahan attended Syracuse University, and a post-college internship with the Florida Marlins turned into a full-time job in marketing and brand management. By 2014, burned out after a string of corporate jobs, Carnahan opened a boutique in northeast Minneapolis; it's now in Nisswa.
Around then, Carnahan says, she nearly made it onto "Survivor."
"I was flown to L.A. and transported to CBS Studios, and there were five women for two spots. Because two of us were Asian American, I thought I had a 50-50 shot," Carnahan recalled. CBS media representatives did not respond to a request to confirm her participation in the show's notoriously secretive casting process.
Cindy Carnahan said their family was not political and she was surprised when Jennifer jumped into politics in 2016. Carnahan lost a state Senate race in Minneapolis — she boasts she knocked on 10,000 doors despite knowing it was unwinnable — before beating two more well-known candidates for party chair in 2017.
Carnahan's supporters say she works hard, regularly shows up at events in every corner of the state, supports candidates up and down the ticket and works to maintain relationships with local activists.
"She works the state like a politician works their district," Hagedorn said. They met in 2017. She was running for chair and he was readying his third congressional bid. He won in 2018; they married just before he took office.
Earlier that year, Carnahan posted on Facebook about facing racism and sexism within the Republican Party. The attacks are "starting to get to me," she wrote.
Some critics in the party including Sutter publicly accused Carnahan of reflexively labeling critics as racist. "She literally utilized the Democrat technique of 'identity politics' with wild abandon," Janet Beihoffer, the party's national committeewoman from 2012 to 2020, wrote last week in an e-mail to delegates.
"I'm not going to comment on the race issue because that's not going to be good for our party," Carnahan said.
Carnahan is the first person of color to lead either of Minnesota's two major political parties. She often faced discrimination as a child, she said: "Kids called me Chinese eyes, or would say, 'Go back to China.' "
Carnahan said she does not believe Republicans have a particular problem with racism in the ranks; it afflicts both parties, she said. She bemoaned the recent spike in violence against Asian Americans but said she doesn't think Trump's use of terms like "China virus" is to blame.
"The president's remarks are referring to the country of origination, not going after an entire group of people," Carnahan said. An individual's bearing toward other races, she said, originates with how they were raised: "I don't believe it's tied to a leader or a political party."
Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413