GOP hopefuls jockeying to face Walz hone in on COVID, crime

Election 2020-Minnesota-Governor
Republican Sen. Michelle Benson, alongside her family including her husband Craig and daughter Claire, 10, made the announcement to launch her campaign for governor, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021 in Blaine, Minn.
Elizabeth Flores | Star Tribune via AP

Minnesota Republicans saw significant developments Wednesday in their chase for a nominee to take on DFL Gov. Tim Walz in his expected reelection bid next year. 

State Sen. Michelle Benson of Ham Lake kicked off her campaign, promising to calm what she described as “rough waters” in Minnesota. 

“Minnesotans across the board are less hopeful than they were four years ago,” Benson told friends and family outside a Blaine manufacturing business. “Well, I’ve seen enough.”

A key colleague, Sen. Paul Gazelka of East Gull Lake, stole a piece of the spotlight by announcing he would leave his post as majority leader in a likely prelude to his own run for governor.

It’s been a few decades since a Minnesota incumbent governor lost, but there is uneven footing across the political spectrum as 2022 approaches. Fourteen months from when voters will decide, the race is still mostly playing to a politically engaged audience.

Benson knows that.

“There’s going to be coffee shops that have four people in them after you drove four hours,” she said. “But it’s worth it to meet those four people.”

Walz is undoubtedly more of a household name. And while no Minnesota governor has been run out since 1990, Walz has his work cut out for him. He’s had to deal with fallout from high-profile police killings, ruffled feathers for not blocking industrial projects loathed by environmentalists and, of course, faced scrutiny over a COVID-19 response some say went too far and others not far enough.

“I did not take this job to figure out how to get re-elected,” Walz said last week. “I took this job to make sure that I served Minnesotans.”

Minnesota also has two major parties built around marijuana legalization, giving their candidates automatic ballot access. Walz favors full legalization but can’t bank on voters who put cannabis atop their issue list.

Gazelka speaks to reporters
Republican Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, speaks with reporters in the Senate chamber of the state Capitol July 7 in St. Paul.
Steve Karnowski | AP

The state Republican Party is reeling from recent leadership woes that burst open after a major donor’s sex-trafficking indictment and lingering money troubles. 

It’s unclear if all candidates will abide by the GOP convention endorsement or press on to an August primary no matter what. Benson said she intends to respect the endorsement but left the door open to a further campaign if the state party doesn’t turn around in time to make that endorsement valuable.

That means outside groups could carry extra weight. 

“There is a void in that space right now as the party goes through some turmoil,” said Kevin Poindexter, chair of the recently formed Foundation for Minnesota’s Future who is a former Republican Party executive director and who led President Donald Trump’s 2020 Minnesota campaign. 

The group is already working to scuff up Walz but isn’t backing a particular opponent.

“We are very much agnostic in the governor’s race on what is happening against Gov. Walz,” Poindexter said. “We’re going to be there to make sure Gov. Walz is held accountable and the positions he is advocating for there is a counterbalance to them.”

On the other side, there’s a similar group called Leadership Matters MN and entities like the Democratic Governors Association working to tout the incumbent’s record. 

Charlie Rybak runs Leadership Matters and said voters shouldn’t lose sight of Minnesota’s strong economy and efforts by Walz to lift up those who haven’t been as fortunate.

“We want to go out and try to tell people the governor is going out trying to beat COVID and keep the economy on track and the Republicans are running around spreading anti-vax nonsense,” Rybak said.

Before the campaign steps into high gear, Republicans first have to decide their nominee.

Rally against vaccine mandates at the State Capitol
Dr. Scott Jensen, a Republican candidate in the 2022 Minnesota governor's race, speaks during a rally against COVID-19 vaccine mandates outside the State Capitol in St. Paul on Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Former state Sen. Scott Jensen has been racking up the miles and campaign donations since he got into the race in March. The family physician from Chaska has built his bid around a message that Walz mishandled the COVID-19 response. He appeared last weekend at a Capitol rally against vaccine and mask requirements.

“Do you see what’s happening? We are all engaged. This can’t be about division,” Jensen told a cheering crowd. “This has to be about us saying one voice, ‘No more! Never again! Our body our choice!’”

In his single Senate term, Jensen wasn’t shy about splitting with his party. He was open to new gun access restrictions but has run as a firm Second Amendment defender this campaign. He urged rally-goers not to put candidates through a purity test.

“Twenty-five times in a row when we’ve stood up in this state in a statewide election, conservatives have lost. And the reason we’ve lost is because we have been narrow-minded,” Jensen said. “We need to win. If you have someone who agrees with you 80 percent of the time, you don’t have a 20 percent traitor, you have an ally.”

North Oaks dermatologist Neil Shah is after the nomination, too. And like the other Republicans, he's hammering Walz on COVID-19 and railing against vaccine requirements by some public- and private-sector employers.

Speaking to reporters at her campaign launch, Benson said she too opposes vaccine mandates and would have charted a different course than Walz.

“I would have moved more county-by-county. We had counties shut down with zero cases. And that caused a lot of unnecessary stress for those businesses, for those schools. Our schools should have been open last fall,” Benson said. “Elementary students should have been safely in schools last year. That fundamentally would have changed this pandemic for families.”

Benson declined to say if she supports firing Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm as some colleagues have pushed for.

Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy and Kasson businessman Mike Marti have also jumped in the race.

Hours before the Benson kickoff, Gazelka said he was giving up his leadership post, which he has long said he wouldn’t hang onto if he ran for governor. He’s said in recent weeks he is leaning toward a run for governor and plans an announcement soon.

“I am so very grateful for the work we’ve accomplished together and believe the caucus is in a very strong position to be successful in the 2022 session and the subsequent election,” Gazelka told colleagues in a letter. “I plan to be a part of that future success but look forward to letting someone else take over serving as leader while I pursue the next chapter in my political life.”

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