Politics and Government

Political experience is line of division among GOP governor hopefuls

Six people sit on a stage with microphones in hand.
Michelle Benson (left), Neil Shah, Paul Gazelka, Mike Murphy and Scott Jensen participate in a governor's race forum in Wayzata, Minn. on Dec. 7, 2021.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News 2021

The most-active Minnesota Republicans are getting a barrage of candidate appeals as they weigh who should take on DFL Gov. Tim Walz in November. One line of division is political experience: Those with it mostly tout it, and those without argue for a fresh start. 

The selection process reaches a key launch point with the Feb. 1 precinct caucuses — the first step in picking a pool of delegates who will try to endorse a candidate in May. For Republicans, that endorsement has been golden and held up in every primary since 1994.

While some contenders are better organized than others, none appear to have a breakaway advantage. 

“The field is wide open,” said Kendall Qualls, a businessman and conservative think tank leader who jumped in earlier this month.

portrait of a man running for governor
Kendall Qualls is a republican candidate running for governor in Minnesota.
Courtesy of Qualls' campaign

Qualls is among those making an outsider’s case in a field of a half-dozen candidates who have mostly held office before. He isn’t entirely new on the political front, having run and lost a race for Congress in 2020.

“Outside perspectives are actually good at times, especially in times of crisis,” Qualls said in an interview. “And I've been shown to be able to be trusted and be able to lead.”

Modern history isn’t on his side: The last time Minnesota elected a governor who hadn't held an elected public office of any kind was in 1966 when Republican Harold LeVander, a lawyer and bank president, aimed high and won his first political campaign. 

The experience question has become something of a flashpoint in the race.

At debates, first-time candidate Neil Shah has taken hard swipes at rivals with political titles. 

“If you think the time is right for a different candidate to run a different mission and get a different result, then I'm your candidate,” Shah told a suburban Republican audience in a December candidate forum. “But running the same folks [for a] 26th time in a row? Probably not going to have a different result.”

Sen. Paul Gazelka didn’t shy from the biographical challenge. 

“I know how to win. I know how to govern, and nobody else here can say this,” Gazelka said to the same crowd. “You can't do on-the-job training."

Shah, a dermatologist, once donated campaign money to Gazelka. But he said he’s felt repeatedly let down by what he describes as a ballooning budget and tepid action on education, taxes and more. 

“Once many of the people in St. Paul get elected, they just want to be reelected,” Shah said in an interview. “And they forget that we the people put them there, and they have a job to do. And that this is service. It is not a career.”

Counting bids for House and Senate, this is Gazelka’s seventh campaign for a state post, winning all but one race so far. Gazelka flinches at the suggestion he’s a political lifer, emphasizing he's spent more of his career building his insurance agency.

“To say that I am a career politician is different than somebody that actually has the experience both in the private sector and in the public sector to govern, and I think it’s a plus,” he said in an interview.

He notes the next governor will have only a couple months to submit a new two-year budget and needs to have relationships to get it through.

A group of people in arm chairs
Republicans (from left) Michelle Benson, Neil Shah, Paul Gazelka, Mike Murphy and Scott Jensen took at a gubernatorial candidates' forum last month in Wayzata.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News 2021

“It took me a number of years to really understand the ins and outs of government,” he said. “It's complicated.”

Having been in office cuts both ways. It builds the kind of recognition often necessary to become a statewide contender, but it brings with it a voting and track record that’s easy for opponents to exploit.

As the Senate’s majority leader until last fall, Gazelka’s fingerprints were on most major agreements since Walz took office. 

Fellow candidate Michelle Benson was in Senate leadership for a time, too, but recently gave up her spot as chair of a powerful health committee as the campaign heats up and amid concern her decisions would be viewed only through a political lens.

"I have more experience than anybody but arguably Paul, and I've done more intense work on budget planning than Paul did,” Benson said. “And I have a different experience than anyone else on that stage. Everybody comes with their story. And I think my Minnesota story matches Minnesota well."

Benson is the only Republican candidate to have been in a statewide race before. She ran as the lieutenant governor choice of then-Sen. Dave Thompson, who came up just shy at the 2014 Republican endorsing convention.

Scott Jensen is a former state senator, but you’ll more often hear him refer to his credentials as a doctor. He declined an interview request, but said at a candidate event that running for governor was never part of a long-term plan.

“Being governor has never been a bucket list thing for me,” he said, describing a decision to run that he and his wife made together. “But Mary and I feel that we're compelled to do it. And we think we are that unique candidate who will not flinch, who's not interested in finding a new career path.”

Mike Murphy is mayor of Lexington, a city of about 4,000 just north of the Twin Cities. He said he’s politically experienced but not entrenched.

“Not being tainted by Minnesota politics within the statehouse gives me the ability to work with anybody and everybody who stands for American principles,” Murphy said.

DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said he’s watching it all unfold but isn’t worried about who faces Walz. He is trying for his party’s fourth straight win in a Minnesota governor’s race — a feat Democrats here haven’t ever pulled off.

“We'll see if the Republican Party can actually get their act together and put together a slate of candidates that actually can appeal to not only their base, but also to independent and swing voters in the state,” Martin said. “They haven't proven successful in over 15 years in winning a statewide election.”