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Port: Republican message group posted slurs while candidates, activists, and elected officials looked on

A group called the North Dakota Young Republicans organized a Telegram group chat for more than 100 of its members, including elected officials and candidates for office, that also featured racist and homophobic slurs.

NDYR Telegram Group
The banner image for a message group on Telegram organized for the North Dakota Young Republicans. Pictured prominently in the image are independent U.S. Senate candidate Rick Becker and his campaign manager Andrea Toman. Several members of the group, which includes elected officials and legislative candidates, have shared racist and homophobic messages.
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Minot, N.D. — A messaging group used by members of a Republican youth group, featuring many recognizable names from politics in North Dakota, including some holding public office, has seen racist and antisemitic posts in recent weeks according to one of its members.

The messaging group was organized by the North Dakota Young Republicans, which was founded to help the NDGOP replenish its ranks of activists with new and younger members.

NDYR Telegram Group
The banner image for a message group on Telegram organized for the North Dakota Young Republicans. Pictured prominently in the image are independent U.S. Senate candidate Rick Becker and his campaign manager Andrea Toman. Several members of the group, which includes elected officials and legislative candidates, have shared racist and homophobic messages.
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The group, which per its website includes members aged 18 to 40 years old, even had a vote on the NDGOP's state committee until they, along with the College Republicans, were moved to ex-officio status in December.

In recent years, the group has become one of the bastions of the Bastiat Caucus faction of the NDGOP, representing the very populist, very Donald Trump-aligned Republicans who are at the heart of a split in North Dakota's dominant political organization.

But according to one of the group's members, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity fearing backlash from other members, some very ugly messages between NDYR leaders and messages are posted routinely and without controversy.

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My source got involved in the NDYR during the pandemic, saying they were looking for a way to get involved in politics. "The name was so generic, I didn't think anything of it," they told me. But when they got involved, things weren't what they expected, especially not after joining the group's messaging list, where racist and anti-gay messages went unchallenged.

I was provided with screenshots showing several weeks' worth of the group's messages sent to the NDYR group on Telegram, an encrypted end-to-end messaging service. The group had 102 members when I began reporting this story.

In one post Carter Eisinger, the NDGOP's candidate for state House in District 11, complains about Fargo-area Democratic-NPL lawmaker Josh Boschee, who is openly gay, working to advance LGBT issues. A reply from a user named Matt Evans describes Boschee as a "degenerate clown" who, along with Fargo City Commissioner John Strand, who is also gay, "are both alphabet soup creatures."

Another reply from Ben Schirrick, the current president of the North Dakota State University College Republicans, describes walking through a "fag festival" and describing the participants as "very loud."

The posts apparently were inspired by efforts by Boschee, Strand, and Fargo Public Schools officials to recruit teachers from Florida who are upset by that state's legislation restricting discussions of sexuality in classrooms.

When I contacted Schirrick about the post, he was unapologetic. "Do you think it's inappropriate to infiltrate a chat?" he asked when I asked him if using that sort of a term was appropriate. "It was a private chat. Hate speech is free speech."

"We've been working very hard in recent months in the group to make sure we don't rat on each other," Schirrick continued. "Whatever blackmail or hit piece you drop on me, when the semester starts, I'm going to hit the ground running." He told me that means he's going to be campaigning hard for Republican candidates and inviting controversial speakers to campus.

Remarkably, as I spoke to Schirrick, he was making posts to the Telegram group, chastising my source for the screenshots and proudly repeating the homophobic slur.

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Carter Eisinger, the candidate for state House, wrote in a subsequent post that "I love being in that screenshot" alongside Schirrick's slurs.

"Careful Ben," Eiseinger wrote, while also posting a screenshot of a Facebook message I'd sent him requesting comment for this story, "you wouldn't want Rob to get a hold of this too."

Eisinger did not respond to a voicemail.

"As a public figure, I know there are certainly criticisms of what I advocate for," Boschee told me when I reached him for comment on the messages. "I feel I advocate for what my district values in terms of inclusivity and making sure everyone has an opportunity to be successful in our state. I think it's unfortunate that these are leaders and people who are running for elected office, that this is how they feel about other North Dakotans."

"What people say about other people says more about them than they know. The old saying you point one finger at someone else, you've got three fingers pointing back," Strand told me in response to the messages. "How we live our lives and what we say and do is a reflection of our own life not somebody else's. If people choose a path of spewing harsh negative toward others, so be it. That's their choice. As for me, I don't carry that around. It's not part of my life. It's theirs."

The group also discussed an effort by Fargo resident Deven Styczynski to challenge Boschee as an independent. Members of the group argued that Styczynski shouldn't run as an independent as that, per a recent change in NDGOP bylaws that came to light after state Rep. Rick Becker opted to challenge Senator John Hoeven as an independent, would prevent him from seeking the NDGOP's endorsement in future cycles.

"This is exactly why I'm not running as an independent for D41," Damian Johnston posted two minutes after Schirrick's comment about the "fag festival." Johnston is the son of former Bastiat Caucus lawmaker Dan Johnston. He serves as a regional chairman for the NDYR and is currently running for the school board in Valley City.

"It really is a stupid rule," Andrea Toman wrote of the same topic in another post made just before Schirrick's comment. She managed Becker's campaign earlier this year when he lost the NDGOP endorsement at the party's state convention.

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"The RINOs control the party," Eisinger posted in response to Toman, referring to an acronym that stands for "Republicans In Name Only."

Another post referred to antisemitic conspiracy theories which hold that Jewish people control the news media.

"I'll post this video every year on the same day as long as the jews don't ban me from the internet," a person with the username Critter1776 posted.

The video in question is of the 2018 Horizon Air Q400 incident which saw a ground service agent with no piloting experience named Richard Russell take off from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Washington in a stolen airplane before intentionally crashing it on an island in Puget Sound.

While flying, Russell asked a ground control official if he could get a job as a pilot if he landed the plane successfully. After the official responded, Russell said, he wouldn't get a job. "Nah, I'm a white guy," he reportedly said.

Russell has since become something of a folk hero to white supremacists on the internet .

I asked my source, who has been a member of the messaging group for months, if anyone in the Telegram thread had ever objected to the blatant use of homophobic epithets and racist tropes.

"No, everyone would just kind of ignore it," they told me.

The list of people ignoring the slurs is a somewhat long one, including officeholders, candidates for political office, and well-known activists, who were active in the group even as the offensive messages were being posted.

One recent post from Johnston invited members of the group to go door knocking in Fargo for Eisinger's campaign.

Another user posted a picture of himself with Becker.

On August 12, Jared Hendrix, a district chairman for the NDGOP, and an organizer for the NDYR and the Bastiat Caucus, posted that the campaign committee for a term limits ballot measure, which he is the chairman of, would be filing a lawsuit against Sec. of State Al Jaeger over the decision to disqualify that measure from the ballot.

Along with my source, I identified thirteen notable individuals, representing a veritable who's-who of the Bastiat Caucus wing of the NDGOP, who have been active in the group, both reading and posting messages, since July.

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  • Andrea Toman, campaign manager for Rick Becker's U.S. Senate campaign
  • Carter Eisinger, a Republican candidate for the state House in District 11
  • Ben Schirrick, the president of the North Dakota State University College Republicans
  • Damian Johnston, son of former Bastiat Caucus lawmaker Dan Johnston and a school board candidate in Valley City
  • Dawson Holle, a Republican candidate for the state House in District 31
  • Jared Hendrix, chairman of the term limits ballot measure campaign, and District 38 chairman for the NDGOP
  • Susy Oliver, District 38 chairman for the NDGOP
  • Matthew Heilman, Republican candidate for the state House in District 7
  • Ethan Harsell, a Republican candidate for the state House in District 43
  • Joy Dahlen, the former president of the NDSU College Republicans
  • Rep. Claire Cory, a Republican elected in District 42
  • Cole Christensen, a Republican elected in District 24
  • Brandon Prichard, a Republican candidate for the state House in District 8

Rep. Cory confirmed to me that she is a member of the group, but claims she doesn't read the messages. "I have it muted," she told me. "I don't look at them. I don't read them."
However, the screenshots I was provided show that Cory did make posts to the group.

Shortly after I spoke with Cory on the phone, my source indicated to me that they had received a notification indicating that she'd left the group.

"Upon being made aware of the content of the group chat by you, I have removed myself from it," she told me in a subsequent text message. "The statements in question do not represent my values or those of my district. Representative Boschee is a legislator who serves his district admirably, and while I disagree with him politically, his sexuality should not be used as a personal attack."

When reached for comment, Johnston acknowledged being a member of the group and reading messages. After I asked him if he thought it odd that nobody had complained abut the use of racial and homophobic slurs, he ended the interview. "I'm not going to answer your questions, Rob."

"To be honest I've just kind of not really been on the app because that's the only group I'm a part of on the app," Holle told me when I spoke with him. "I haven't really noticed anything. I just joined it recently so I'm not really familiar with it."

"Yes I've seen them," Oliver said when I reached her for comment. "There are many things that people post that I don't agree with, but they have a right to say what they want to say," she said when I asked for her response to the messages. She then asked that I email her any further inquiries.

"I don't go on these group chats often," Harsell told me, adding that he left the Telegram group as soon as he became aware that I was looking into the messages. "As a gay man, I think the quality of Josh Boschee has nothing to do with him being gay," Harsell added. "Being a gay man, it doesn't qualify me or disqualify me as a candidate for office."

"I have no idea," Harsell said when I asked why nobody in the group pushed back on the homophobic and racist messages. "Instead of calling it out it just gets ignored." Harsell said one reason he didn't engage is because it's not worth his time to argue with bigots. "I want to isolate from them because what they said about Bouchée is how they feel about me and I don't need them in my life," he said.

"People can say what they want even if I gravely disagree with it," Prichard told me in a text message sent after this story was published. He said that the messages on in the chat group shouldn't be attributed to the entire Young Republicans organization, and argued that I was behaving unethically as a journalist. "You are employing a classic guilt-by-association tool which is unethical and should not be used by serious journalists," he said.

He also denied be a member of the Bastiat Caucus movement.

Hendrix, Heilman, Toman, and Christensen did not respond to my inquiries.

This story originally quoted Carter Eisinger as saying he was proud to be pictured in screenshots alongside homophobic slurs. That was incorrect. He actually used the world "love."

This story has been updated to add comments from Brandon Prichard which were received after initial publication.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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