Inside a Widow’s Scorched-Earth Bid for Her Husband’s Old Seat in Congress

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Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Star Tribune/Getty/Facebook
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Star Tribune/Getty/Facebook

On the surface, Jennifer Carnahan couldn’t have a better story to tell.

Born in South Korea and adopted by an American family, Carnahan was a small business owner who rose to chair of the Minnesota Republican Party almost immediately after entering politics. Now, she’s running for the congressional seat that was most recently held by her late husband, Jim Hagedorn, who died of cancer in February.

“It was Jim’s wish that I carry his legacy forward,” Carnahan wrote on Facebook when announcing her campaign, two weeks after Hagedorn’s death. “And I promised him I would not let him or southern Minnesota down.”

If this were said by someone else—maybe anybody else—it might have been received as an inspirational rallying cry. But many of those who actually know Carnahan, beneath the public image, don’t want to see her get anywhere near the position of power her husband left behind.

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Scores of Minnesota Republicans, for one, seem to have their own horror stories about Carnahan, according to public statements and sources who spoke to The Daily Beast who know Carnahan or worked with her.

Last summer, after Carnahan’s friend and GOP activist Anton Lazzaro was charged with child sex trafficking, four former executive directors of the party posted a remarkable open letter. They accused Carnahan, among other things, of covering up sexual harassment in the party ranks and ruling “by grudges, retaliation and intimidation.” Later, a former staffer accused Carnahan of outing her as queer.

In August, Carnahan finally resigned as party chair—but not before casting the tie-breaking vote to give herself a $38,000 severance check. Shortly afterward, Carnahan took a trip to the Spanish island of Ibiza. Screenshots of her social media posts detailing the vacation plans were obtained by The Daily Beast, and multiple sources in Minnesota politics confirmed she went in mid-September 2021.

Carnahan did not bring Hagedorn with her. According to two sources familiar with the congressman’s medical treatment, after his cancer had returned in July, he was receiving extensive medical care.

Brandon Wear, a spokesperson for Carnahan, said Carnahan’s vacation to Ibiza lasted only two days, and clarified that Hagedorn was not in the hospital before or during her trip.

Other moments gave Hagedorn’s friends and supporters pause as to Carnahan’s treatment of her husband. Before she resigned, journalist Rebecca Brannon posted a recording of a phone call in which Carnahan told someone matter-of-factly, “Jim will be dead in two years.”

On Facebook, when Carnahan was not posting inspirational quotes from herself, she sometimes left angry comments on her husband’s page. Once, she vented that he did not thank her for her efforts to celebrate his birthday. On another, she demanded to know why there was not a picture of her on his desk in Washington.

To be sure, Hagedorn wasn’t her only occasional target on social media. According to screenshots obtained by The Daily Beast, Carnahan twice messaged Jeff Probst, host of the reality show Survivor, to complain that she had not been selected to be on the show.

“Is survivor going to keep discriminating against Asian Americans? Or will you finally cast me?” Carnahan said, on March 22, 2021. “Anti asian Hate is real.” (The screenshot shows no response from Probst.)

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In response, Wear said that Carnahan “says what she feels and isn’t worried about being politically correct. That is why she will be a great Congresswoman—she won’t be a typical politician.”

According to multiple sources who heard about it or experienced it firsthand, Carnahan’s abrasive behavior alienated contacts well beyond Minnesota. In Washington, Republicans have responded to her campaign with a grimace—including those who knew her late husband well.

“Numerous Congressmen who were friends with Jim have expressed displeasure at the prospect of serving with Carnahan,” said one national GOP operative, who requested anonymity to describe private conversations.

There’s another concern, too. If Carnahan wins the May 24 primary, some worry her checkered record could put this seat at risk for the GOP. Although Trump carried the 1st District by 10 points in 2020, the area has elected plenty of Democrats in the recent past. Jeff Ettinger, the wealthy former CEO of the local agriculture giant Hormel, is the likely Democratic candidate.

“If she is the candidate there, every story is going to be, ‘Jennifer Carnahan—by the way, Tony Lazzaro,’” said one Minnesota GOP insider, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. “That’s not good for us. I truly think she’s the one Republican that could lose the seat.”

The GOP primary has seven candidates, but the top three are considered to be Carnahan and two state lawmakers, Jeremy Munson and Brad Finstad. Munson, running in the MAGA lane, has the backing of Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY); Finstad is supported by several GOP members of Congress, including two of three from Minnesota.

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Carnahan cannot boast any endorsements of a similar caliber—including from any of her husband’s colleagues—but aside from saying her late husband wanted her to win, her campaign materials are full of photos with Trump, even though the ex-president has not endorsed in the race.

Wear, Carnahan’s spokesperson, said the campaign’s polling shows her beating any Democratic candidate and that “any insinuation otherwise is false.”

If Carnahan wins the primary, Republicans may face a lose-lose scenario: either she costs the GOP a seat, or they’re stuck with her holding a seat in Congress. And win or lose, Carnahan’s return is, seemingly, retraumatizing the entire Republican political class in this important purple state.

That misery may not end on May 24. Minnesota’s 1st District is essentially seeing two elections at once: one to fill Hagedorn’s seat until his term would have ended in January 2023, and another to fill it for the following two years. Even more confusingly, on August 9, voters will select the person who will serve the remainder of Hagedorn’s term—and they’ll also vote in separate primaries to select each party’s nominees for the November general election.

The conventional wisdom in Minnesota is that the confusion will mean that the winner of next Tuesday’s special election primary will also be the nominee for the November election. But Carnahan has cash to burn—she just loaned her campaign $200,000—which has sparked speculation about whether she might continue to run even if she lost the May 24 primary.

In her campaign, Carnahan emphasizes her personal story and her fealty to Trump and the MAGA agenda. But the centerpiece of her bid is Hagedorn, and her claims that she is running at his behest to honor his memory.

Many of Carnahan’s claims, especially her defenses of her time as chair, rankle those Republicans who have a different understanding of the story. Her claims that she is her late husband’s hand-picked successor are murky, too.

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Gary Steuart, a local businessman and GOP activist, was a key backer of Hagedorn’s campaigns as well as a personal friend.

After Hagedorn took issue with Steuart’s criticism of his wife’s leadership of the party, they didn’t talk frequently in the final months of the congressman’s life. But neither did many other friends and colleagues. Despite their attempts to reach him, few can claim to know his final thoughts.

But Steuart says he knows one thing: “I never heard of him supporting anybody for this seat,” he said. “When he first got sick [in 2019], he told me within a few weeks of his diagnosis—he said, ‘maybe this would give an opening to a young guy in the district.’”

“I never heard him voice any support for her running,” Steuart emphasized. “If he had a strong opinion about who would succeed him, I never heard it.”

A close personal friend of Hagedorn’s, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, confirmed that assessment. Hagedorn would “have a cow,” the friend said, if he knew that Carnahan was claiming that he wanted her to take his seat. Hagedorn wouldn’t have been against her running, the friend said, but he felt that anyone who wanted to run should have the chance to.

In response, Wear said that in Hagedorn’s final days, he actively encouraged his wife to run, and gave her campaign advice. He also said that Steuart and Hagedorn were once friends but had a “falling out” after Steuart “began attacking” Carnahan.

“Gary and Jim were not close for the last few years of Jim’s life,” Wear said, and claimed “Gary is not a reliable source on Jim Hagedorn’s thoughts or opinions.”

Hagedorn and Carnahan’s marriage was somewhat perplexing to some Minnesota political observers. Hagedorn, a former government official who had a record as a provocative right-wing blogger, wed Carnahan in 2018, after winning the 1st District seat on his third try. Neither had married before; he was in his mid-fifties and she in her early forties.

Carnahan, who in 2016 lost a bid for a state Senate seat in Minneapolis, remained a presence in the Twin Cities. Hagedorn split his time between Washington and Blue Earth, the small southern Minnesota town where he was born.

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Republican sources recall Carnahan traveling with her husband to Washington, but she was considered a scarce presence in Blue Earth, which sits in the center of the district she now hopes to represent. Steuart recalls Hagedorn saying Carnahan “refused to live” in his rural hometown. Wear declined to respond to this claim and said that Carnahan lives in Blue Earth now.

Hagedorn was diagnosed with stage four kidney cancer in 2019. By early 2021, he was saying that it had receded after an operation to remove a cancerous kidney. By summer, however, it had returned.

By August, Carnahan was ousted as chair. Her downfall was set in motion by Lazzaro’s arrest on child sex trafficking charges, which was first reported by The Daily Beast. Republicans, including the former executive director at the time, publicly disputed Carnahan’s insistence that she didn’t know anything about a criminal investigation of Lazzaro.

Carnahan and Lazzaro had an extensive relationship. They hosted a podcast together. He contributed to her campaigns. And he was in attendance when she and Hagedorn married in California.

Many Republicans saw the firestorm over Carnahan that followed the Lazzaro news as a dam-breaking moment that exposed years’ worth of other grievances about the chairwoman’s management of the party and her treatment of others.

“Jennifer has done a good job of making this about Tony Lazzaro—not about her other behaviors,” said one Minnesota GOP insider, referring to her record in politics. “In reality, there’s so much more to it.”

Ultimately, Republicans began publicly calling for Carnahan’s resignation not only because of the Lazzaro news but over the allegations in the former party directors’ open letter and the leaked recording of her comments about Hagedorn’s health.

She has continued to insist it was all unfair. In a friendly interview in the Washington Examiner in April, Carnahan called the episode a “complete smear job,” alleging “it was the drive-by media and establishment Republicans working to take down a good person like myself.”

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After Carnahan left her position as chair, she kept a low profile. By January, Hagedorn’s health had taken a turn for the worse. He was admitted to the Mayo Clinic to deal not only with cancer but a case of COVID-19. It was around this time that sources in Minnesota politics say they noticed Carnahan potentially laying the groundwork for a campaign for her husband’s seat.

On Feb. 1, less than three weeks before Hagedorn died, county GOP organizations across the state held their annual caucus meetings. These meetings, the foundational blocks of Minnesota’s party-driven politics, are where hardcore activists meet to select their delegates to the district and then state party conventions.

Despite being based largely in the Twin Cities in her political career, Carnahan signed up to be a delegate from Faribault County, where the town is located. It is possible to register as a delegate remotely, and Wear said that on Feb. 1, Carnahan was with Hagedorn in Arizona, where he was receiving treatment. Still, sources noted the significance of her effort to deepen her attachment to Hagedorn’s political home base.

After Hagedorn died, Carnahan controlled who could come to his memorial services, according to two sources. Steuart, his friend and supporter, said the late congressman’s family wanted him to come—but he did not receive an invite.

Wear responded that “the funeral home had limited capacity so the funeral itself was invitation only, but there was a public visitation period prior to the funeral anyone could attend.”

It was at this time that tensions seemed to flare between Carnahan and Hagedorn’s family. Michael Brodkorb, a former GOP activist who now reports on politics, tweeted that a fight broke out between Carnahan and members of the Hagedorn family at a Washington restaurant after his funeral there. Efforts to reach his relatives were unsuccessful. Carnahan’s spokesperson denied that any altercation occurred.

In April, Brodkorb noted some unusual activity on Hagedorn’s Facebook page. Among other things, his cover photo was changed to a picture of Carnahan and Hagedorn’s wedding.

Some Republicans are concerned that, in a low-turnout primary election, at a moment when few voters are paying close attention, Carnahan could edge out her rivals thanks to her story and association with Hagedorn.

With the election just days away, Carnahan has considerable resources to remind voters of that association. Her final federal campaign finance filing shows she loaned her campaign $200,000. No one with the last name Hagedorn has contributed to her campaign, according to federal campaign finance records. In fact, Hagedorn’s sister, Heidi, contributed $1,000 to Munson on Tuesday, according to a source with knowledge of Munson’s campaign.

“I do get the sense that Carnahan has momentum—she has a lot of people who, if for no other reason, remember she’s Hagedorn’s widow and will vote accordingly,” said Dave Thul, a longtime conservative activist in the district who left the party in 2016 over Trump.

If that’s the case, some Republicans expect that Carnahan would indeed represent her husband’s district for years to come. One GOP operative who has worked on Minnesota races, also speaking anonymously, said “people’s distaste for Jennifer clouds their judgment” and argued she would beat a Democrat if she were the nominee.

But the problems that ended up derailing Carnahan’s career in Minnesota, observers believe, wouldn’t magically come to an end if she were to go to Washington. Her sky-high ambitions, said the operative, have “caused her to make unforced errors, be brash, go scorched-earth. It has alienated people who should be her strongest supporters.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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