Jennifer Carnahan is an unconventionally ambitious rookie politician.
She's the rare moderate conservative who doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge Republicans have an image problem. Carnahan styles herself a quixotic idealist who harkens back to the founding ideals of the Republican Party. For these and other reasons, she's the underdog of underdogs.
Carnahan, 40, was adopted as an infant from South Korea by a Minnesota couple who raised her in Maple Grove. Her career in marketing transversed answering fanmail for the Florida Marlins to general management for McDonald’s, General Mills, Ecolab, and Swarovski, and she now juggles three upscale boutiques.
This past November, she ran as a Republican candidate for the state senate in a strongly DFL district comprising downtown and North Minneapolis.
Carnahan knew she couldn't win, and didn't: DFL Sen. Bobby Joe Champion was comfortably reelected, Carnahan gathering only 22 percent of the vote. But the Republican ran as though victory were always possible, she says, with her team knocking on more than 10,000 doors. She got 1,800 more votes than the last Republican to run for that seat, and outperformed Donald Trump by 56 percent.
The point was to move the needle, learn how to manage a campaign, and gain exposure to voters and within the party. One of those opportunities is opening up soon. Keith Downey's decision to step down as chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota leaves a leadership vaccuum at the top of the state party. Carnahan is running to succeed him in a party election on April 29.
Carnahan says she’s perfect for the top job because the party’s brand could use a facelift, and she’s not the typical 50-year-old white man who’s usually at the helm.
“I think the perception that’s been created is not the reality of the Republican Party. The Republican Party is not a racist, close-minded, bigoted, anti-woman party,” she says. “I think I could help my party start to break down some of the negative perceptions that people may have, start to make inroads into different groups, whether it be minority groups or people that consider themselves more socially moderate, fiscally conservative.”
There are some who believe she’s getting ahead of herself, trying to cash in too early. In talking to other party members, from the grassroots level to leadership, Carnahan says she’s heard she’s too new to the game, and should wait her turn. She's been encouraged to join the board of the Minnesota Federation of Republican Women for a few years before the party would be open to her. Maybe she'd be ripe for stardom by the time she’s 50 or 60.
Other candidates have better name recognition. There’s Rick Rice, National Republican Committeeman who was just put in charge of the state party's finances, and Chris Fields, MN GOP deputy chair, who is African American and a retired Marine. Both have more experience than Carnahan.
She has no delusions about her chances. But still, it’s irked her to hear other Republicans try to tell her when she would be ready.
“My feedback to all of them is, the reason I’m a Republican is because we don’t believe in telling people when they can achieve something,” Carnahan says. “We always say Democrats are the ones who are trying to hold people back from realizing their potential. Now, if people don’t elect me, that’s fine. But I don’t think I should be told I can’t even try.”