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Hagedorn widow faces competition for his Minnesota seat

Jennnifer Carnahan resigned as state party chair in August

As Minnesota state Republican chair, Jennifer Carnahan applauds during a Sept. 18, 2020, rally for President Donald Trump at the Bemidji Regional Airport.
As Minnesota state Republican chair, Jennifer Carnahan applauds during a Sept. 18, 2020, rally for President Donald Trump at the Bemidji Regional Airport. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images file photo)

Corrected, March 17 | The latest in a long line of widows to seek to succeed their husbands in Congress, Minnesota Republican Jennifer Carnahan said this week she’ll run for the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn’s seat. But the former state party chair faces a contest, and enters with some baggage.

Hagedorn died last month at age 59 after battling kidney cancer. Carnahan, 45, said it was his “wish” that she would step in and run for the seat if he couldn’t finish the term to “keep this district in conservative hands, keep his legacy moving forward and keep all the hard work and effort and relationships he had built going strong.”

“Working side-by-side with my husband for four years, in this district, and then serving as state party chair for four-and-a-half years for the entire state of Minnesota has really taught me how to reach out to voters, how to connect with them,” she said. “The thing that I loved most about my husband and I’m hearing it from people in [the] outpouring of support is that my husband truly was never above anything. He just wanted to be and work for the people.”

To serve the remainder of his term that runs through January, Carnahan would have to beat a 10-candidate GOP field in the May 24 primary that includes state Reps. Jeremy Munson and Niels Pierson, attorney Matt Benda and former Marine Kevin Kocina. There are also eight candidates in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party primary and two third-party candidates running. The special election is in August, and Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the 1st District race Solid Republican.

Born in South Korea and, she has said, adopted as a baby after being abandoned next to a garbage dumpster, Carnahan worked in business before becoming more involved in GOP politics in 2016. She married Hagedorn in 2018.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said that while women now have more paths to the House, succeeding their husbands was once a common way for them to get to Congress. Widows have at times served for a short while on Capitol Hill and then left, while others have marked their own storied careers. 

Reps. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., and Julia Letlow, R-La., won special elections to fulfill their late husbands’ terms. Letlow ran to fill the seat left open by the death of her husband just days before he was set to be sworn in last year. According to CAWP, 40 women have succeeded their husbands in the House.

Two other spouses who have recently run to succeed their spouses weren’t elected, though. Susan Wright, the wife of the late Rep. Ron Wright, lost a Texas Republican primary runoff to Rep. Jake Ellzey last year. In 2020, Maryland Democrat Kweisi Mfume won an election to fill the remaining months of former Rep. Elijah Cummings’ term, defeating 23 Democrats, including Cummings’ widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings.

Like Carnahan in the GOP, Rockeymoore Cummings chaired the Maryland Democratic Party before running for Congress. Having a record can be beneficial — but also has its drawbacks, Walsh said. 

“She in some ways doesn’t have that clean slate that oftentimes the widow has, which makes her more complicated,” she said. “It means that you have a record, and it is the blessing and the curse of having a record.” 

Carnahan’s time leading the state party could be baggage she’s bringing into the race. She resigned from the position in August after allegations that she ran a “morally bankrupt” organization and a GOP donor with whom she had previously hosted a podcast was arrested on federal sex-trafficking charges. 

In an interview, Carnahan noted the gains Republicans made in Minnesota under her direction and called the criticism of leadership an “unfair characterization.” 

“If you go and look at everything we accomplished under my tenure as state party chair, there are so many positives that we should be pointing to and lifting up,” she said. Republicans flipped three congressional seats, and the national party targeted Minnesota during the 2020 presidential election, although President Donald Trump lost the state by 7 percentage points. The state party also retired $10 million in debt during her tenure.

“There’s so much to be proud of there and that’s what we should be focusing on as a party, is how do we take and harness the great growth that we built in four-and-a-half years and how do we seek to grow that for the future so that we can be positioned to win the governor’s race this fall? Right, so how do we hold on to this seat and flip yet another congressional seat? Which I think is certainly a possibility,” she added. 

With a large primary field, Republicans aren’t rallying around her campaign. Pennsylvania Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, which Hagedorn served on, endorsed Brad Finstad, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture official. 

“As Republican Leader on the House Agriculture Committee, I know Congress needs strong rural leaders who will fight for family farms and our conservative values,” Thompson said in a statement before Carnahan declared her candidacy. “From his legislative experience, to being appointed by President Trump as Director for USDA Rural Development, Brad is battle tested and the right choice for Minnesota’s 1st District.”

This report has been corrected to reflect the number of widows who filled their late husband’s seats.

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