A month out, no GOP candidate has lock on endorsement for governor

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

Jockeying among Republican candidates aiming for the governor’s office remains intense as the universe of voters they need to persuade has narrowed considerably.

About 2,200 Republican state convention delegates who will vote one month from Thursday in Rochester on an endorsement are the main focus of seven major contenders vying for the chance to face DFL Gov. Tim Walz in November. By most accounts, none of the candidates has locked down anywhere near the 60 percent support to win the endorsement on the first ballot.

“It will be a free for all come May 14th,” said state Sen. Paul Gazelka, the former majority leader and second-place finisher in a February straw ballot at precinct caucuses.

State Sen. Paul Gazelka announces he's running for governor
GOP state Sen. Paul Gazelka announces he's running for governor during a press conference at the Minnesota Capitol, September 8, 2021.
Brian Bakst | MPR News 2021

“There are too many candidates in the race for somebody to seal it up on the first ballot, so there'll be a floor fight,” echoed state Sen. Michelle Benson, another candidate in the mix.

Scott Jensen became the early frontrunner by catapulting himself to the front of the candidate pack by stirring up doubt about COVID-19’s severity and containment measures. He cruised to the caucus straw poll victory, but was still shy of a lock on the endorsement.

After mingling last month at an event with supporters, the family doctor and former state senator from Chaska took to the stage and offered up provocative stances as the big crowd cheered him on.

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“We should have a serious discussion, not just about getting rid of Social Security taxation, but we should have a discussion about how could Minnesota look, if we didn't have a personal income tax? Why can't we have that discussion?” Jensen asked, never indicating if he would actually push for that outcome.

About the last presidential election, he said this.

“We need to have a forensic audit into the 2020 election,” Jensen said. “We know that. We know that.”

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 Aug. 28, 2021.
Tim Evans for MPR News 2021

Tune into any GOP candidate event and there’s plenty of overlap in the messaging: You’ll hear that Walz overreacted to COVID-19; he hasn’t been tough enough on crime; that parents deserve a greater say in education. Add to that the traditional stances against legal abortion and for the broadest gun rights, a slimmer state budget and more polling place scrutiny.

In many ways, Republicans are in search of a messenger more than their fall message.

Gazelka tells the party faithful he’s a known quantity.

“The biggest thing that I bring to the table is that I have the experience to do this job,” Gazelka said. “You need somebody who can guide the ship.”

Gazelka points out he’s gone toe-to-toe with two DFL governors, Mark Dayton and Walz. As a current legislator, he’s carrying bills this year in sync with campaign themes on education, crime and support for police.

“I tell people ‘Look, Benson and Jensen both picked me to be the leader of the Senate,’” Gazelka said.

Benson has been working hard to claw her way back into contention after a disappointing showing on caucus night.  

“Once delegates get really focused on electability and the mission of the next governor, I'm right in the hunt,” Benson said, also touting her legislative record as an asset. 

“I have proof of the things that I've stood for because I do have votes,” Benson said. “Other candidates have talking points.”

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

Delegates at the convention are often pledged to a candidate on the first ballot but become free agents after. That poses a dilemma in a packed field. Those chasing the leader need to sow doubt about electability. But coming on too hard can turn off that person’s backers for good.

“What you need to be with this larger field, is you need to be everybody's second choice,” said Tim Commers, who was campaign manager for Tim Pawlenty when he secured endorsement after 12 ballots in 2002. Commers is not associated with any current campaigns.

For Republicans, the endorsed candidate usually becomes the nominee, with only Arne Carlson successfully challenging the convention winner in a primary over the last few decades. He was the incumbent Republican governor in 1994 when he won a primary and a general election after being denied party endorsement.

All of the candidates say they’ll abide by the convention’s will. Commers said he expects delegates to pick somebody. 

“The delegates come to endorse. So this whole idea that there's going to be a deadlocked convention, that doesn't happen very often,” Commers said. “And I would think that wouldn't happen, that with this many candidates, there's going to be enough movement that somebody is going to get endorsed.”

Kendall Qualls is banking on delegates wanting somebody without political battle scars for Walz and Democrats to exploit. He’s a business executive, think tank founder and 2020 congressional candidate — though never an elected official.

“Now's not the time to go with a standard career politician,” Qualls said at a campaign event in March. “We need someone from outside of politics, someone from the private sector with private sector solutions. And that's what I bring to the table.”

Republican Kendall Qualls
Republican Kendall Qualls announced on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, that he's running for Minnesota governor.
Courtesy of Kendall for Congress 2019

He’s not the only one pushing the outsider theme. Dermatologist Neil Shah is making his first run. Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy says his brand of local experience allows him to straddle the insider and outsider lanes.

Also running is former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, a past legislator and state agency commissioner.

All of the candidates must report their fundraising and spending to state campaign regulators by the end of Thursday. Reports, which will show who’s succeeding and who is struggling, will be made public Friday.

While the Republicans work out their nominee, Walz faces no serious opposition within his party for the nomination. He’s been busily raising money, too, notching $1 million in the first three months of this year to bring his campaign account to $4.1 million.

Walz campaign manager Nichole Johnson said it shows his backers are “fired up” with the election a bit more than six months away.

“Our campaign will have the resources necessary to reach voters in every corner of the state with our messages of moving Minnesota forward and building One Minnesota,” she said.