Minnesota Republicans meet to endorse candidates for governor, other top offices

Delegates sing the national anthem before the start of the 2018 Republican Party state convention. Minnesota Republicans gather Friday in Rochester for their state party convention.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2018

Minnesota Republicans gather Friday in Rochester for their state party convention amid a backdrop of discontent fueled by dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden, lingering anger over pandemic restrictions many felt went too far and a false sense that Donald Trump unfairly lost in 2020.

The official business of the convention is to endorse candidates in three key races: governor, attorney general and secretary of state. A fourth race, state auditor, has only a single Republican candidate who is set to win endorsement by acclimation.

Republicans sense that voter frustration with inflation, crime and other hot-button issues will carry them to their first statewide victory since 2006. But Democrats are intent on holding back a wave to protect their incumbents, having stockpiled campaign money and touting the positive aspects of the economy.

Six contenders are hoping to win the governor’s race endorsement, which for Republicans in modern times has meant the eventual party nomination. 

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They are: former state Senator Scott Jensen, Senator Paul Gazelka, business executive Kendall Qualls, former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, dermatologist Neil Shah and Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy.

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. in December.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News 2021

None is believed to have the 60 percent delegate support needed to win the endorsement outright on the first ballot. Trailing candidates will eventually fall off the ballot, leaving a scramble to persuade their supporters. That kind of instability can mean candidates in the second or third position at the outset vault past the early balloting leader.

The eventual nominee would face DFL Gov. Tim Walz and third-party challengers in November. Republicans last held the governor’s office in 2011, after two terms by Tim Pawlenty concluded.

Republican majorities in the Legislature are within reach, with the GOP bullish it can flip the House and keep the Senate, perhaps giving the party full Capitol control for the first time in modern history.

All of the candidates for governor signaled initially that they would abide by the party endorsement. That is, they would not run in a primary if another candidate gets the party seal of approval. But there have been indications in the days leading up to the convention that some may be rethinking that idea. 

The party also faced internal dissension over plans to conduct the endorsement votes electronically rather than use paper ballots, which could give some candidates a reason to contest the outcome and take the nomination to voters to decide in the Aug. 9 primary. One of the initial convention fights could be over the voting method.

The suspicion about voting integrity has been stoked by former President Trump’s contention that the 2020 election was stolen from him, despite no evidence of widespread fraud and Trump’s inability to convince the courts of any wrongdoing. 

For attorney general there are several candidates competing for the endorsement: former legislator and judge Tad Jude, attorney Jim Schultz, attorney Lynne Torgerson and former state Rep. Doug Wardlow, who was the party nominee in 2018. Former state Rep. Dennis Smith has said he intends to run in a primary no matter who is endorsed, which would extend the nomination battle until August. The nominee will eventually face DFL Attorney General Keith Ellison.

In the secretary of state race, Kim Crockett and Kelly Jahner Byrne are vying for endorsement. Both have said they’ll push to rework voting laws if elected, including more restrictions on absentee voting and Election Day administration. DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon is trying for a third term.

The auditor’s race is the only one without endorsement mystery. Ryan Wilson is alone in seeking party endorsement to take on first-term DFL Auditor Julie Blaha in November.