Small but feisty right-wing populist movement in Otter Tail made election season interesting—but impact marginal at ballot box

By Louis Hoglund

Action was brisk at 7 a.m. when the polls opened at Lida Township Hall for the general election Nov. 8.

The election race for Otter Tail County sheriff was perhaps the most obvious evidence that area voters want to “stay the course” in 2022.

Current sheriff Barry Fitzgibbons swamped his opponent Joey Geiszler, garnering nearly 73 percent of the countywide electorate. 

Geiszler was one of four candidates endorsed by the “Otter Tail County Conservative Coalition,” which has been active on social media. The Coalition of like-minded conservatives, with a decidedly Donald Trump-populist framework, also hosted candidate forums and meet-and-greet events over the span of the election season. 

“Take back our county” was one of the Coalition’s battle cries, which was put into action with flag-waving “Caravan of Patriot” cruises, and anti-abortion speakers.

All four of the Coalition’s preferred candidates lost, suggesting that Otter Tail County continues as a Republican stronghold—but by and large, with “mainstream-establishment” tendencies. 

Sheriff Fitzgibbons collected 18,792 votes, to Geiszler’s 7,427. 

The conservative group also endorsed a candidate in Otter Tail county board district 3, Bradley Sunde—but he was trounced by incumbent Kurt Mortenson—4,088 to 1,707. 

Nathan Miller’s ambitious, but futile, write-in candidacy was also supported by the conservative group. While Miller’s approximate 3,500 votes were impressive for a long-shot write-in effort—Republican Jordan Rasmusson’s 25,372 was overwhelming. The Coalition’s allegations that Rasmusson “stole” his Republican candidacy during caucus and endorsement conventions gained little traction, based on the vote counts. 

The Conservative Coalition’s endorsement of Jeff Gontarek for OT County Board District 2 fared better. Incumbent Wayne Johnson won by only about 66 votes—but it is unclear whether the Conservative Coalition was a factor or not in the close race. Gontarek had name recognition, having run against Johnson in 2018; and he had appeal among many voters as a Pelican Rapids area native. Gontarek also ran an aggressive campaign. The “incumbent advantage” that aids re-election for many politicians didn’t appear to benefit Johnson—who probably lost more votes than he gained. After 12 years on the county board, Johnson acknowledged that a candidate will inevitably have detractors and critics.

A surprise in Otter Tail voting was District 4, where incumbent Betty Murphy lost narrowly 2,574-2,419. 

District 4 extends from central Otter Tail, and Murphy’s hometown area of Maine Township to the southeast, to Parkers Prairie where her opponent, Bob Lahman, benefitted from strong support. 

Oddly enough, the Murphys are a Republican political couple. Her husband won the State House District 9B legislative race—while wife, Betty, lost.

Interestingly, the Conservative Coalition evidently took no position on District 4 candidates. The activist group didn’t appear to outwardly favor either Tom Murphy for House or his spouse Betty for county board. 

When all is said and done, the Conservative Coalition’s influence—at least at the ballot box—resulted in a record of no wins, and four losses.