GOP's Gazelka makes it official: He's running for governor

Top Senate Republican Paul Gazelka talks to reporters.
GOP state Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, spoke to reporters in June about the state's budget bill. On Wednesday, he made it official that he's running for governor.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP file

Updated 11:44 a.m.

GOP state Sen. Paul Gazelka formally announced his run for governor Wednesday, saying Minnesota’s future was at a “crossroads” as he quickly took aim at DFL Gov. Tim Walz.

Gazelka criticized Walz for shutting businesses and schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and faulted him for the virus outbreak in nursing homes. He also jabbed the governor for his response to the social unrest last year following the murder of George Floyd, saying Walz didn’t move quickly enough to restore order.

“Tim Walz says he wants one Minnesota, but I’ve never seen Minnesotans more divided, angry and afraid than they are today,” Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, told supporters as he unveiled his campaign at the Minnesota Capitol. “Is this the road we want to go down?”

Gazelka, 61, who stepped down recently as Senate majority leader, is known for his deep Christian faith and conservative stances on abortion, gay rights and other issues. He’s been a state senator since 2011.

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He joins several Republicans vying for the party's nomination, including state Sen. Michelle Benson of Ham Lake and former state Sen. Scott Jensen of Chaska. Frequent candidate Bob Carney, Kasson businessman Mike Marti, Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy and dermatologist Neil Shah round out the Republican field.

Walz has not officially announced a reelection campaign, but he has been raising money and is widely expected to run for a second term.

Gazelka described himself as someone who has blocked some policy ambitions of two DFL governors while pushing his party’s priorities ahead.

“If you look at my record of the last five years about no tax increases, defending the Second Amendment, making sure we had clean and reliable energy and not going too far on some of the mandates that cripple businesses — each of the decisions I made, I think, are where the people of Minnesota want to go,” Gazelka said.

In Minnesota’s history, 23 governors served in the Legislature at some point prior to becoming the state’s chief executive, according to the Legislative Reference Library.

But only two governors in the last half-century have come straight from the Legislature, although countless state lawmakers have tried. Walz was a member of Congress before he won the governor's office.

Democrat Roger Moe tried to make the leap from Senate majority leader to governor in 2002. Left-leaning third party candidates contributed to his loss that year to then-House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, a Republican.

Being a lawmaker looking upward is both a blessing and a curse, Moe said: Someone who is familiar with the issues and government but who can easily be dinged for being too close to the action. 

“You generally get blamed for anything that anybody perceived to be wrong because you were there,” Moe said, adding that he's perplexed by those who would rather see a political newcomer.

“You’d never go to a doctor who didn’t have any experience. You wouldn’t go to a dentist who had never done it before. You’d never do a lot of things with inexperienced people,” Moe said. “But for some reason the voting public seems to think that if you have no understanding of government or no experience, that should qualify you.” 

Republican Matt Dean also tried to move up. The former House majority leader ran for the GOP endorsement in 2018 but dropped out and backed the party’s eventual nominee, Jeff Johnson, himself a past legislator. 

Dean said he thinks legislative experience is mostly an asset because it builds connections that can pay off in the chase for delegate support, but he said the voting record lawmakers amass is fertile ground for opponents even if they're not always fair about the way they use it.

“There’s thousands and thousands of votes that you take,” Dean said. “Definitely people are going to look at one here, one there. And unless there is a pattern that has angered people or taken the notice of people, the sad fact of the matter is there are merchants of anger out there right now who will fabricate whatever they need to to satisfy whatever kind of message they want to run.”

Democrats were quick to criticize Gazelka on some of his votes, particularly on health care and rollbacks of COVID-19 restrictions.

“At every turn, Paul Gazelka has failed to put Minnesotans first and, instead, pursued a harmful partisan agenda that risks the well-being of Minnesota and its families,” Democratic Governors Association Executive Director Noam Lee said in a statement. 

And the Democratic entities pointed out that Sen. Jerry Relph died after attending a Senate GOP party after last year’s election. Gazelka addressed that incident.

“We followed all the guidelines that were required at that particular moment, and he contracted the virus,” Gazelka said. “I’ve always frankly said the virus is serious, particularly if you’re over 70. I’ve gotten COVID. I also got vaccinated. I think people should get vaccinated.”