State Republican convention picks candidates for AG, elections chief

A group of people at the GOP convention
Delegates gathered at the GOP convention on Friday May 13 in Rochester, Minn.
Mike Mulcahy | MPR News

Updated 7:30 p.m.

Delegates at the Republican state convention endured long lines, last-minute politicking and tussles over rules Friday amid eagerness to cast votes that are shaping their election ticket.

Three big races got more clarity. A trio of lawyers won party endorsement in their statewide runs: Jim Schultz for attorney general, Kim Crockett for secretary of state and Ryan Wilson for auditor.

The mood at Mayo Civic Center in Rochester ranged from enthusiastic about a favorable political environment to apprehension that internal struggles could get in the way. The convention itself underscored the two – many first-time delegates and alternates packed the auditorium but time pressured to complete work before the party loses its venue.

The main business is to endorse a candidate for governor, which is on Saturday’s docket. Republicans must leave the convention hall by 6 p.m. on Saturday. The winner will be the main opponent of DFL Gov. Tim Walz, although third parties are also fielding candidates.

“The only thing that presents an obstacle to our success this fall is us,” said Republican Party chair David Hann as he gaveled the convention to order. “Do we have the will to do the things that are necessary to be a majority party?”

The convention started nearly two hours after the scheduled 10 a.m. kick-off, with delegates still unsure whether they would use paper ballots or vote electronically on endorsements.

MPR News is Reader Funded

Before you keep reading, take a moment to donate to MPR News. Your financial support ensures that factual and trusted news and context remain accessible to all.

Once the opening gavel fell, the vote to use electronic balloting was overwhelming, in part because counting paper ballots by hand would have delayed the process possibly longer than the party had rented the arena

Republicans quickly endorsed attorney Wilson for state auditor, the only candidate who sought GOP backing. “Together we will win back Minnesota and the comeback begins now,” Wilson said in an acceptance speech.

Then the party moved to a contested race for secretary of state between Crockett and Kelly Jahner-Byrne, a race elevated given the party’s concerns about election integrity stemming from the 2020 presidential race.

Crockett had a wide lead on the first ballot and was endorsed when Jahner-Byrne dropped out before the results of the second ballot were announced.

“We must root years of hyper-partisan election processes built up over 16 years of Democratic  rule,” Crockett told delegates. “My goal is to restore everyone’s confidence in elections by making it easy to vote but really hard to cheat.”

DFL incumbent Steve Simon is seeking a third term as secretary of state in November.

Republicans picked a political newcomer to be their endorsed candidate for attorney general.

Schultz scored a fourth ballot victory Friday evening at the convention.

Schultz is a Harvard Law graduate who has been in private practice doing civil litigation. He had support from a statewide police officers’ association, an important nod given that crime will be a top campaign issue.

Schultz said he’s ready for a tough race with DFL Attorney General Keith Ellison.

“We’re going to go after Keith Ellison every day of the week. Minnesotans deserve a fighter because there’s a lot to be fought for,” he said.

Schultz defeated three other candidates who sought the endorsement. That includes the party’s 2018 nominee Doug Wardlow, who said he wouldn’t move his campaign forward once Schultz was on the verge of a win. Another candidate, former state Rep. Dennis Smith, has said he would run in an August primary. Filing for the ballot opens next week.

All eyes, though, are on the governor’s race. Six candidates – state Sen. Paul Gazelka, former state Sen. Scott Jensen, Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy, business executive Kendall Qualls, dermatologist Neil Shah and former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek – were seeing the endorsement, but Stanek was not at the convention. He was late to enter the race and has been recovering from a recent car accident. It is unknown if he’ll continue on to an August primary.

The rest have said they’ll honor the convention’s will and leave the race if somebody else is endorsed.

The Mayo Civic Center auditorium walls were plastered with campaign signs. There were hospitality suites where delegates can pick up free logoed trinkets, shirts and bags. And there was free food to keep participants nourished during what is going to be a long haul. 

Delegates rejected a proposal to move the governor’s endorsement from Saturday to Friday, meaning their time could be limited with so many candidates contending and a hard deadline of 6 p.m.

Each of the five candidates contending were greeting delegates as they came in Friday. 

It takes a vote of 60 percent of the convention delegates to endorse, and no one was thought to reach that threshold on the first ballot. Candidates need to meet different thresholds as the ballots progress to stay in the running. So second and third choices are important.

The endorsement is important for Republicans. Every endorsed candidate since 1998 has gone onto the nomination, though only one has become governor. Tim Pawlenty’s win in 2006 was the last statewide Republican victory.

Frustration over COVID-19 vaccines, restrictions and other steps taken during the pandemic are a driving issue for many Republicans.

Delegate Emily Sieberg of Mapleton said the stakes of the election are high because of it.

“The governor does not have the right to be king and close our businesses and our schools and to make our choices for us,” she said.

Watching from afar were state Democrats, who were already working to brand Republicans as too extreme to win. DFLers meet next weekend in the same building for their party convention, where fractures between progressive and moderate wings could also appear.

Julie Quist has been a delegate to GOP state conventions going back to the 1980s. Her husband, Allen Quist, was endorsed for governor in 1994 — and is the last to lose a primary; sitting Gov. Arne Carlson won it that year en route to a second term.

Quist said she doesn’t think that will happen this time even if there’s a fractious convention. More than half of the delegates are first-timers.

“People are really pumped,” Quist said. “And it’s interesting because the division really indicates that there are people from all different points of view coming together to make a change. And I think that's going to carry the day regardless.” 

The convention went into recess before 7:30 p.m. and will reconvene at 9 a.m. Saturday.