Amid the talk of cracking down on crime and defending religious freedom, the debate among Republicans jockeying to run for Minnesota attorney general soon took a hard turn to insurrection.
One candidate suggested that the Jan. 6 rioters — including some who were in the audience this late January evening in Chisago County — were improperly prosecuted. Another proudly pointed out that at least two of her staffers were at the U.S. Capitol that day.
"Quite honestly, it seemed at the time that the election of Joe Biden was actually somewhat of a coup, and that the truth [was] the person who won was President Trump," said Lynne Torgerson, a Minneapolis attorney and one of five Republicans seeking the endorsement to challenge DFL Attorney General Keith Ellison.
"And so, I think in a lot of ways, the people at the Capitol on January 6 were heroes and trying to preserve who was actually elected."
As Minnesota Republican candidates try to win back statewide elected offices for the first time in more than a decade — and also control of the Minnesota Legislature — at least a half dozen are mixing false claims about mass election fraud and the COVID-19 pandemic with other talking points on public safety and the economy.
Now under new leadership, the Minnesota GOP is at a crossroads as it approaches this spring's convention: Forcefully rein in discredited and conspiratorial claims, or stay quiet while levying allegations of the same practices against their political opponents?
"It keeps us from moving forward — which has to happen," said Amy Koch, a GOP operative and former Minnesota Senate majority leader. "We do run the risk of getting bogged down and looking backwards and fighting a fight that's over and resolved and decided."
Republicans encounter this choice at a pivotal moment both in Minnesota and nationally. Party leaders, insiders and candidates all remain optimistic that the GOP can capitalize on a midterm election that typically swings to the party not holding the presidency.
Yet multiple Minnesota Republicans running for governor, attorney general and secretary of state are among a growing number of statewide candidates nationwide to promote false claims that the 2020 election was not legitimate. Others have supported unproven treatments for COVID-19 and claimed that deaths attributed to the disease were being overcounted.
To date, the topic of curbing disinformation has not been a prominent focus in the higher reaches of the Republican Party.
When asked whether the party's leaders were worried about the spread of misinformation among its candidates, Minnesota U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, instead accused Democrats of being untruthful about the causes of inflation and higher gas prices. "The worst examples of disinformation we've seen in the last year-plus is coming from Democrats," he said.
Emmer did vote to certify President Joe Biden's election last year, but as a party leader and chief of the GOP's congressional campaign arm, he has not — at least publicly — intervened to counter false or misleading statements from within his own ranks.
False claims on campaign trail
States United Action, a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization focused on election security, has tallied as of the first of the month at least 86 candidates in statewide races nationwide who challenge the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Two-thirds of all gubernatorial and secretary of state contests have so-called "election deniers" seeking those offices, as do a third of all attorney general races. Minnesota has Republican candidates meeting that criteria in each race.
In Minnesota, GOP debates for those offices have sparked such false claims dating back to last year. During a December gubernatorial debate, all five candidates on stage would not directly acknowledge that Joe Biden legitimately won the presidency. They cycled through claims of dead people voting, ballot harvesting and thousands of improper mail-in ballots.
Dr. Scott Jensen, a Chaska family physician and former state senator, reached frontrunner status in the race for governor after two years of questioning COVID-19 vaccines and treatments that garnered accusations of spreading disinformation. But in an interview, he said he has seen no evidence that he has deceived Minnesotans with his statements, intentionally or unintentionally. He added that he has accepted the 2020 presidential election's results, although he believes that at least some level of wrongdoing took place.
"Do I think that there were shenanigans in the 2020 election? Absolutely, I do," he said. "Do I know to what level they rose? No, I don't, but I can't know that. I'm not privy to that information."
Additional audits conducted by Trump allies in states such as Arizona and Wisconsin have not turned up evidence of significant voter fraud that would have changed the 2020 election's outcome.
Doug Wardlow, a Republican seeking a rematch of his 2018 defeat to Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, was one of the Minnesota candidates labeled an "election denier" in the States United report.
He described the group as an "extreme-left advocacy group" that uses "false, pejorative labels to silence discussion about election integrity while raising money for their radical agenda." Like Jensen, Wardlow added that he recognized Biden as president but also said that he believed there were "serious problems with the 2020 elections."
Wardlow also works as general counsel for Mike Lindell's MyPillow, which is engaged in multiple defamation lawsuits over Lindell's ongoing campaign alleging a voter fraud conspiracy by two voting machine companies.
"I am particularly proud of the work we have done defending MyPillow and standing up for the First Amendment right of every American to speak their mind on matters of public importance," Wardlow told the Star Tribune.
Party leaders have yet to intervene, at least publicly, to rein in false claims on election fraud or public health that have surfaced at debates this year — much to the dismay of operatives yearning for a focus on issues they believe the party can win on in November.
The Minnesota GOP's new leader is David Hann, who was elected party chair last summer after the tumultuous exit of Jennifer Carnahan, who is now running for Congress.
Earlier this year, he downplayed the severity of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol siege, opting instead to describe it as a "disturbance of some kind." Hann insisted that Democrats and the press spent more time thinking about it than he and his party do.
In a recent interview, Hann said reporters show "less concern about what Democrats say than what Republicans say."
"It's a little concerning to me when we hear, 'Here's some examples of disinformation' and it's all things a Republican has said and never anything a Democrat said," Hann said, though he did not cite examples of alleged disinformation promoted by Democrats. "That tells me there is something not right here. It's unbelievable to me that the only kinds of disinformation … whatever that might be, can only happen by Republicans and never happens to Democrats. And we know that's not true."
Misinformation is false information spread with or without the intent to mislead others, while disinformation is defined as the intentional spread of false information. Leaders from both the Republican and Democratic parties are accusing one another of being guilty of both practices.
Hann's DFL counterpart, Ken Martin, argued that Minnesota GOP leaders are "embracing and encouraging" disinformation on the path to the 2022 election.
"Their candidates are actively spreading disinformation and flat-out lying, and the Republican Party stands up and says nothing," Martin said. "They are not only embracing it, but they are complicit. To me that's the real challenge."
'Not a way to win'
Questions about election integrity drew some of the most energized responses from an audience of about 150 people who showed up to a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Owatonna to watch four GOP attorney general candidates debate.
Torgerson, the Minneapolis attorney and attorney general candidate, suggested investigating and even eliminating voting machines in the state. She introduced herself as a "Christian, patriot and Trump supporter," and later falsely claimed both that the FDA-approved COVID-19 treatment drug remdesivir caused harm in a large number of patients and that ivermectin, which is not a proven treatment, saved many from death.
In an interview before the debate, Steele County Republican Party Co-Chair Pam Seaser, one of the event's hosts, said she is quick to tell community members that there is no problem with voting integrity in the county. She often points out that she personally knows people who volunteer as election judges and is friends with the county auditor.
Lingering fears about fraud stemming from claims about the 2020 election were among the top issues cited by activists during February's precinct caucuses, Koch said.
"That's not the way to attract new people to the party," Koch said. "That's not the way to move forward and provide a message that fits for all Minnesotans. It's not a way to win an election."
Steven Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, says social media's ability to help discredited claims catch fire has lurched on to the campaign trail.
"It's really hard on Minnesota citizens because when you have all this stuff coming at you it really requires a lot of mental effort to sort through and figure out what is true and what is not," Schier said. "It makes electoral choices harder, it makes the election system work more poorly. It's a big problem for democracy, no question about it."
Data irregularities in results from Morrison County, where Sen. Paul Gazelka's gubernatorial campaign is based, meanwhile prompted accusations of fraud within the GOP's own ranks.
Dr. Neil Shah, another Republican running for governor, alleged election fraud by Gazelka's campaign and staffer Mandy Heffron, who also serves as Morrison County's GOP party leader. In response, Gazelka decried those accusations but also levied his own claims that Shah's campaign improperly wrote down names of delegates who were not in attendance.
Speaking before the recent Owatonna debate, Seaser called out the intraparty fraud barbs: "Don't go out there and say it's widespread. Don't make allegations, and then the people jump [to conclusions]. Look at it, find out the facts and then let's talk. We don't really have a lot of time to have that conjecture."
"We're not alarmists," Seaser said. "We've been in this long enough and we trust the local. A lot of times you can get worked up about statewide and then you go to the national level. Our job here is Steele County."
Reckoning with the future
State Rep. Jordan Rasmusson, R-Fergus Falls, from the start has been a vocal critic of those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — and their backers — labeling the perpetrators "riotous criminals." Just a day before the nation's Capitol was under siege by a pro-Trump mob seeking to overturn the election results, Rasmusson was sworn in as a state legislator in St. Paul for the first time.
The young Republican now seeking to succeed the retiring Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen in his west-central Minnesota district still envisions the state GOP serving as a "big tent party" capable of winning over independent and undecided voters this fall. In Pelican Rapids, where minority residents now outnumber whites, Rasmusson has door-knocked in Spanish and had volunteers getting out the vote in Somali. Often, residents told Rasmusson and his team that they had never had a candidate come talk to them before.
He acknowledges that "there are a few loud voices that can get a lot of attention" in his party, but he does not believe they are representative of Minnesota Republicans at large. He also reminds himself that when he encounters an angry constituent, they often arrive at that place of anger out of fear over the state of the economy, world affairs or otherwise.
"For me, the way to answer that is just to be out and be present and be sharing proactively solid information that is helpful for people as they are trying to figure out what candidates to vote for or what initiatives to support," he said.
State Rep. Nolan West, R-Blaine, another young Republican legislator, said he takes much the same approach in his district. He prioritizes talking one-on-one when possible with those who confront or challenge him in group settings, calling it an "absurdly effective" way to eventually find common ground.
West said he wants to restore civility to politics, insisting on referring to people — opponents and allies alike — by their formal titles and introducing legislation that would make political affiliation a protected class in the workplace.
But West has also been swept up by conflict within conservative ranks. He unsuccessfully sought criminal charges after being physically tossed out of a caucus training event in his district that was hosted by the far-right Action 4 Liberty group earlier this year. The group is backing primary challenges of sitting GOP legislators deemed not conservative enough. Jake Duesenberg, its president, in an e-mail accused West of trespassing at the event.
West is quick to say that he believes both parties are guilty of disinformation and, like Hann, believes Republicans receive a disproportionate amount of scrutiny on the subject. He parallels GOP doubts about the 2020 election with Democrats' claims that Trump's 2016 win was tainted by Russian interference.
He describes himself as a student of history, yet it's something that offers him little solace today. He calls the last 75 years of prosperity — accompanied by a fast-eroding shared understanding of facts — as "an anomaly of history."
The enduring dispute over what is true and what isn't, made worse by political polarization and geographical divides, has West concerned that it could metastasize into broader "serious conflict."
"The incentives are perverse right now, and how can we fix that? Well, we can't fix everything," West said. "My biggest fear is sometimes we have to learn the hard way. That is just the reality if you take a historical perspective."
Both West and Rasmusson point to social media's ability to spread disinformation and stoke partisan rage as a major driver of the discord disrupting today's politics. Rasmusson still receives plenty of e-mails, often pulling from national stories, from constituents citing falsehoods to prop up worries about Minnesota's election apparatus.
As he tries to make the leap to the Minnesota Senate, while attempting to boost his party's chances elsewhere on the ballot, Rasmusson is fighting to refocus the GOP at a crucial electoral moment.
"A question I get a lot is, what will it take for Republicans to win statewide in Minnesota?" said Rasmusson. "My answer is we need to get more votes."