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Carnahan runs not only to succeed her husband, but to mirror him

Carnahan runs not only to succeed Hagedorn but as his political doppelganger.

Jennifer Carnahan
Jennifer Carnahan, who is running in the special election for the open First Congressional District seat, is photographed on Tuesday, March 29, 2022, after speaking at Harvest Church in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Jennifer Carnahan is running not only to succeed her late husband in Congress, but almost as a mirror image of the man, his policies and his Trumpian styling.

One big difference: It took Jim Hagedorn nearly eight years and four stabs at the House seat before winning it. Carnahan, a first-time political candidate, has less than two months before a May 24 special primary election.

Two months after her husband died and six months after resigning as state GOP Republican Party chairman over allegations that she cultivated a toxic work environment, Carnahan was at Harvest Church in northwest Rochester running for Congress.

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Carnahan is one of 20 people running in the 1st District special election race that was called following Hagedorn’s death from kidney cancer on Feb. 17.

Carnahan said that before he died, Hagedorn gave his blessing and encouragement to her to run. And her campaign themes and message echoed those of her husband, a staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump and his policies.

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“It’s just like President Trump. I’m still a political outsider,” Carnahan said in an interview with the Post Bulletin. “I know how to listen and fight for the people. We have to buck the status quo. You have to continue to put the interests of the district first.”

Two overlapping elections will decide who represents the 1st District. The special election on Aug. 9 will pick someone to fill the vacancy and serve out the remaining five months of Hagedorn’s term. The special election will be held on the same day as the general election primary. On Nov. 8, voters in redrawn district boundaries will elect a new representative to serve a two-year term starting in January.

In her speech at Harvest Church, attended by about 45 audience members, Carnahan sought to set herself apart from the other candidates by arguing that she had the ability to draw not only Republican voters but independents and “soft” Democrats in a general election. And in a crowded primary race that could be decided by a small plurality, she cited her name recognition as an asset.

“I come in with a lot of positive name recognition, having worked this district incredibly hard,” Carnahan said, citing Hagedorn’s two electoral victories in the 1st District. “Also as Jim’s spouse, knowing a lot of folks across this district, having a good sense of the key issues, because Jim served agriculture and small business and watching him do his work.”

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In the interview, Carnahan called President Biden "incredibly weak” on foreign policy and slammed his administration for reversing Trump’s energy policies and “killing our energy independence.” Carnanhan said spiking inflation was harming the small businesses and farms that make up the bulk of southern Minnesota’s economy.

Few would dispute that Carnahan boasts name recognition as high as anybody in the race, but the key question is whether it will benefit her or not. Some have their doubts.

“There’s a lot of baggage from what happened when she left as chair that does not energize a broad base,” said Greg Gallas, former chairman of the Republican Party of Olmsted County and a member of the Olmsted County GOP executive committee. “Many people actually wonder: What’s her experience across CD 1? I know what her permanent residence was, and it wasn’t CD 1.”

Carnahan disputes this. She has lived in the district, she said, since she and Hagedorn first met, but they also shared a place in the Twin Cities because that’s where her job was. She said that her family’s roots are in the 1st District and she counts Blue Earth as her home.

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Carnahan stepped down last August as state GOP Party chairwoman after a statement signed by four executive directors accused Carnahan of ruling by “grudges, retaliation and intimidation.” It described the party as “morally bankrupt” under her leadership, and that she used her power to “cover up allegations of sexual harassment and abuse” from a multitude of women.

Carnahan defended her stewardship of the party, saying “many other employees” who worked for her would tell a different story.

“They think I was the greatest manager they ever worked for, that felt I built an inclusive, collaborative team environment,” Carnahan said. “You’re talking about four people. The party has more than four employees.”

Carnahan said she resigned despite feeling unjustly accused because she decided to put “my family and my husband first.”

Many Republicans running for state or federal office continue to question the outcome of President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory, even though recounts, audits, court rulings and statements by members of Trump’s own administration validated the outcome. Carnahan was no different, saying that, “as we’re campaigning, people have serious concerns about the election.”

“My husband voted against certifying the presidential electors, because he had concerns about how election laws were being interpreted,” Carnahan said. “I have a similar view.”

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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