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When a young Jennifer Carnahan arrived at Syracuse University with her family, she had dinner with her grandmother and talked about her planned major: broadcast journalism. Carnahan told her grandmother she had a good chance to become a sports broadcaster. She’s a Korean woman, she explained, which made her unique, as sports broadcasters don’t typically look like her.
Her grandmother responded: “No, Jennifer. You actually have a good chance of becoming a sports broadcaster because you’re really good and you work really hard.”
Carnahan did not become a sportscaster. But she found another microphone in a different public arena: In 2017, Carnahan became the first Asian American chairwoman of the Republican Party in Minnesota. There, Carnahan promotes Republican values like patriotism, hard work and striving for the American dream.
As an immigrant, she also embodies them as she travels across the state and the country, including a stop at the Republican National Convention, which began Monday.
To political critics and many voters, the GOP under President Donald J, Trump appears to be odds with a multicultural America. Minnesota has two Latino representatives from the Republican Party in the state Legislature.
During his recent visit to Mankato, President Donald J. Trump depicted immigrants as a drain on public services, a strain on city budgets and a burden on schools. From the very beginning of his 2016 campaign and throughout his tenure in office, Trump has continuously disparaged immigrants and refugees on Twitter and at rallies. Meanwhile, he’s taken executive actions against them and their families in the areas of immigration policy, refugee status and access to public benefits.
Carnhan, an immigrant herself, speaks for the party’s immigration record. And that job seems especially interesting this fall, as the Trump campaign seemingly attempts to soften his image. During his recent Minnesota campaign visit, Trump included brief conversations with two immigrant business owners who sustained property damage after the George Floyd unrest.
At the RNC, the party strategically placed people like the U.S. Senator Tim Scott from South Carolina and former Governor Nikki Haley in prime slots. And the second day of the RNC included an unprecedented—and skeptically reviewed—swearing in ceremony for new Americans, in a highly unusual White House setting. (Carnahan tweeted a photo of herself at age 3, after her own naturalization, walking on the lawn at the state Capitol.)
Carnahan came to the United States as part of a wave of 15,000 adoptees who arrived from South Korea, starting in the 1950s. Minnesota has the highest concentration of Korean adoptees of any state, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. Many of these children joined white families in the suburbs of Minnesota—in Carnahan’s case, Maple Grove.
“I’ve been in Minnesota since I was a baby,” Carnahan said in a recent Zoom call with Sahan Journal. “I came here at five months old, so obviously I don’t know anything other than being a Minnesotan. Because of my parents and the way that my family has been, honestly, that’s what makes me a Republican.”
Over 40 years later, Carnahan has probably seen more of Minnesota than almost anyone else in the state. With the elections just a few months away, Carnahan said, her outreach work has tripled. During the primaries, she ranged across the entire western part of the state in two days: Litchfield, Fergus Falls, Alexandria, Morris, Wilmer, Marshall and Olivia.
“It’s nonstop, all the time,” Carnahan said. “We’re always planning political strategy, political plans, working with candidates, raising money, focusing on events, trying to stay connected to our national partners.”
Carnahan added, “No day is ever the same.”
That said, her goals couldn’t be steadier. First, Carnahan said, the Minnesota GOP wants to take the U.S. Senate seat, in which former U.S. House Representative and political radio talker Jason Lewis is running against the incumbent, Senator Tina Smith. Minnesota Republicans haven’t held a statewide seat since 2006.
The party also hopes to maintain a two-seat majority in the State Senate while also flipping nine districts to gain a majority in the House. On top of all that, “the biggest prize would be if we can give our electoral votes to the president,” Carnahan said.
“It’s very much within reach,” Carnahan said of the GOP’s lofty hopes. “If there’s any year that Minnesota is going to do that, it’s going to be this year.”
At the same time, Carnahan’s party faces fundamental demographic challenges to attract new voters. Between 2016 and 2018, Minnesota added some 17,000 eligible white voters, according to APM Research Labs, a nonprofit affiliated with American Public Media and based in Minnesota. During the same period, Minnesota added 64,000 eligible voters of color. For Carnahan to achieve her goals, it would be helpful—and may be essential—for the party to attract not just a larger voter base, but a more diverse one, too.
For ambitious women, politics may offer more opportunity than corporate America
Carnahan has used the story of her own upbringing to appeal to more voters who look like her. She came to America as a baby, found support in a family from Maple Grove and ascended through the corporate marketing world.
It seemed like anything was possible for Carnahan. Until, she said, she discovered that women encountered steep challenges while trying to climb the ladder in the “good ol’ boys’ club” of corporate America.
Carnahan held marketing posts in a number of big corporations, including General Mills, Swarovski, McDonald’s, Ecolab and Caribou Coffee. At one firm, Carnahan got hired as a senior marketing manager. She said it was reasonable for her to expect to become a director within 18–24 months.
But in the three years she worked at this company, which she declined to name, Carnahan instead watched men from the levels below her climb the ranks faster than she could.
“That frustrated me a great deal,” Carnahan said. “And I wanted to be the CEO of a business someday.”
When that mission began to seem unviable, Carnahan said she decided to pivot to working for the Republican Party. The private sector had become quite political in her eyes anyway.
Robert Yang, the chair of the Asian American Republicans of Minnesota, worked closely with Carnahan during her campaign to become the chair of the Minnesota GOP. And he witnessed her drive: Yang said Carnahan often works upward of 15 hours a day and will sleep about four hours a night.
“She’s very passionate about what she believes in,” Yang said. “She’s one of the hardest working people that I know.”
Before she became chairwoman, the Minnesota Republican Party was about $2 million in debt, according to Becky Alery, the Minnesota GOP’s executive director. Following her appointment as the first Asian American chair of the Minnesota Republican Party, Carnahan fervently pursued funds from new donors and dug the party out of debt.
Alery described Carnahan as incredibly hands on, involving herself in all aspects of the day-to-day operations of the GOP office, from department meetings to press calls. “Her work ethic is unmatched,” Alery said.
These were all assets that Carnahan brought with her from the corporate world, she said. Yet here, in politics, she could finally break through the glass ceiling to create change within the party. That change included advocating for her own status and compensation.
Carnahan submitted a memo to the Minnesota Republican Party in 2018 that outlined a plan to increase her pay. She would receive 10 percent of major donations and a performance-based payout of $24,000 annually, in addition to her $67,000 salary.
For Carnahan, the request seemed reasonable, considering the fact she was working upward of 100 hours per week. At the time, she said, she had doubled the average annual donation from existing donors while attracting new backers.
Carnahan said she’s sharpened her understanding of the political playing field. “I was looking at it through a business lens,” she said, pointing toward pay equity. “Maybe all this is something women do to themselves.”
What she asked for amounted to about $80,000, and Carnahan said she really didn’t think she was asking for much. The executive board of the Minnesota Republican Party agreed and passed the proposal unanimously.
‘The party is not against immigration’
The statewide environment has been a difficult one for the Republican Party to work with. The Republicans hang on to just the Senate, and they’ve been locked out of statewide positions over the last few election cycles.
Some of that could stem from the party’s unpopularity among non-white voters across the country, according to the Pew Research Center. Black voters vote overwhelmingly Democratic, with 84 percent identifying with the Democratic Party compared to 8 percent with the Republicans. Latino Democratic voters outnumber Latino Republicans by a two-to-one ratio. And Asian American voters have followed a longer trend in declining Republican affiliation.
Carnahan believes 2020 could turn the party’s luck around. Her message: The economy, COVID-19 restrictions, and debates about police reform will motivate voters to turn out in the party’s favor.
Take COVID-19 out of the equation, and Carnahan said the economy under Trump has done quite well. Republican voters, she said, reject the way Governor Tim Walz has wielded his executive power to limit in-person business operations during the pandemic.
Additionally, Carnahan said the protest against the police killing of George Floyd destroyed hundreds of businesses in Minneapolis. As a result, voters are going to “punish the Democratic candidates on the ballot.”
“We can’t live in fear for the rest of our lives,” Carnahan said. “I know people want to be safe and we don’t want more people to die. But we cannot live like this forever. At some point we have to be able to move forward.”
Carnahan doesn’t know if immigration, in particular, will drive voters to the polls. In the national 2016 election (Mexico will pay for the Wall) and 2018 (migrant caravans), Trump and the party campaigned on stark accounts of the threats posed by illegal immigration across the southern border. And she seemed wary of commenting on whether the party should reprise that appeal to fear. She’s not an elected official and can’t influence legislation, she said.
Her own personal views on immigration were informed by her upbringing as a Korean American and the “very global friends” she’s made. Her argument, naturally, sounds like a very Republican one: “Legal versus illegal immigration, if you boil it down to the very base,” Carnahan said.
Carnahan’s best friend from college immigrated from Turkey to attend Syracuse University. Her friend got married not too long after, but she didn’t actually become a U.S. citizen until she was 35 years old.
“It took her that long. She waited in line, she did it the right way, she was even married,” Carnahan said. “The party is not against immigration, or immigrants to the country. It’s about having a system, when there are thousands of people out there doing it the right way, waiting their turn, biding their time, being good citizens.”
Beyond policy, Carnahan said her personal experiences—as an adopted child who has traveled and made friends around the world—molded her into “a more open person.”
‘The Republican Party is so much more than old white men’
Despite Carnahan’s open nature, she has also become well known for her fiery presence in interviews and on social media. For example, responding to the president’s use of terms like “China Virus,” and “Kung Flu” for coronavirus, Carnahan recently told KARE 11 that the Asian American Pacific Islander Caucus does not take offense.
“I think that people are completely misconstruing his words and it has absolutely nothing to do with racism. It’s more about origination,” Carnahan said then.
In a blast of partisan pride, she recently tweeted that the contrast between Republicans and Democrats is clear: One party believes in the American dream and the other believes in hate.
The biggest criticism Carnahan has of the Democratic party is its interest in categorizing people and making assumptions about voters based on their identity. Carnahan said she doesn’t fit in those predetermined categories.
“I don’t like people singling me out as being Asian,” Carnahan said. “I prefer for people to look at me for who I am as a person, not what the color of my skin is.”
Now that she’s found success through the Republican Party, Carnahan said she hopes to undo the (false) perception of the Republican Party that’s been created by the left over the last few generations. Namely, that Republicans are racist, sexist and bigoted.
“The people that I interact with everyday, they don’t have a racist bone in their body,” she said.
Alery said it’s refreshing to see Carnahan representing the Republican Party in Minnesota.
“Republicans often get painted as old white men, and that’s kind of what the face of the party has been portrayed as for the last couple of years,” Alery said. “But the Republican Party is so much more than old white men.”
In fact, Alery pointed out that while an Asian American woman is the chair of the Republican Party, the chairman of the Minnesota DFL is “a white male.” Regardless, Carnahan’s story is quite different from what mainstream voters are used to hearing from Republicans, Alery said.
“I’m an American and I’m a Minnesotan, just like every other person in our party,” Carnahan said. “When I go into meetings, whether people are Caucasian or whatever they are, it’s not a thought that ever crosses my mind.”
Unraveling the myth about the Republican Party is a longer term mission for Carnahan. But she said that the party will do so by “creating opportunity, not looking at people differently, and wanting everyone to have the same opportunities for success.”
And she’s already begun that effort. At the start of her post as party chair, Carnahan helped Yang create the Asian American Republicans of Minnesota, the first GOP affiliate group of its kind in Minnesota.
“Jennifer Carnahan was the leader behind all that. She helped me work with party leaders,” Yang said. “Our goal is to help reach out to Asian American families and communities in the GOP.”
Alery added that the initiatives Carnahan has undertaken signify a changing narrative within the Republican Party. She said they’re trying to reach out to communities they’ve historically neglected or groups that Democrats have “taken advantage of.”
Expectations of Carnahan to fulfill the goals of the Republican Party this November have increased.
Earlier this week, Carnahan left Minnesota for the RNC in Charlotte, North Carolina. There she co-lead the Asian American Pacific Islander Member Caucus to “lift voices” of marginalized groups.
Weekends at the cabin will have to wait
When Carnahan left the private sector for politics, she traded in peaceful summer weekends at her childhood cabin in Brainerd for a life on the road working with candidates, attending events, raising money, and mustering up donors and voters.
Carnahan said her work has tripled since the primaries. But she has managed to fulfill another (unofficial) job as a lifelong Minnesotan: She has squeezed in at least a few trips to her cabin this summer.
“I use it as a stop, if I have to go to, say, the northern part of the state for my job,” Carnahan said. “Instead of driving five hours, I’ll just drive three and crash at my cabin for a night.”
Carnahan added, with no sense of sadness, that she won’t be able to spend a weekend off in Brainerd until after November 3—Election Day.
Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.