Updated: 6:10 p.m. Saturday
Republican delegates chose family physician and former state Sen. Scott Jensen as their candidate for governor Saturday after a pitched endorsement battle that went nine ballots.
Jensen, who served one term in the Senate, beat out four other candidates in a see-saw battle where he saw an early lead disappear and then return as other contenders left the race.
"Folks, it’s we the people,” Jensen said as he accepted the endorsement. “Let’s go from here and let’s send a clear message to Tim Walz. We appreciate that you tried but we’re going to give you early retirement."
Jensen started his campaign in March of 2021 as an opponent of COVID-19 restrictions who bucked conventional wisdom about the pandemic, contesting CDC estimates of the death toll, resisting vaccination requirements and promoting alternative treatments.
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While Democrats and others accused him of spreading disinformation, his statements and appearances in conservative media drew wide attention on social media and attracted money to his campaign.
More recently, he has suggested that DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon should be jailed for his role in easing absentee ballot rules for the 2020 election.
Jensen repeated that at the state convention in Rochester Saturday, and said rules around voting have to be tightened.
“I’ll shut down government in order to get election security,” he told delegates from the convention stage. “We are going to have photo ID.”
Jensen also apologized to delegates for co-sponsoring a bill when he was in the Legislature that angered 2nd Amendment supporters because it would have expanded background checks for people purchasing firearms.
The endorsement doesn’t guarantee Jensen will be the Republican candidate in November to face DFL Gov. Tim Walz. He could still face a primary challenge, but over the last 30 years the GOP endorsement has been an accurate predictor of the party’s nomination.
Democrats were quick to respond to news of his endorsement.
“Minnesota Republicans have chosen the most extreme and dangerous candidate to lead their party in the fall,” said Ken Martin, chair of the Minnesota DFL Party in a statement. “In just the last two weeks, Scott Jensen has promised to ban abortion for rape victims and to throw one of his political opponents in jail. Minnesotans want their leaders to focus on helping working families, but Scott Jensen is only interested in his far-right political agenda.”
Jensen emerged as an early frontrunner in the GOP race, winning a precinct caucus night straw poll and raising more money than the other contenders. His choice of former Minnesota Vikings player Matt Birk as his running mate, doubled down on his appeal to the party’s conservative base. Birk is an outspoken opponent of legal abortion and a proponent of private schools.
Jensen said in an interview with MPR News in March he would seek to ban abortion in Minnesota if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion in the United States.
Jensen’s toughest competition for the endorsement came from business executive and Army veteran Kendall Qualls.
Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy, who led the race on one ballot earlier in the day, had to drop out after the sixth ballot and threw his support to Jensen.
Murphy called Qualls a “sellout,” and said Qualls had offered him the position of running mate but then took it back.
Qualls denied that, but Murphy showed delegates texts from Quall’s campaign staff and said he had recordings of a meeting with Qualls.
The afternoon saw a back and forth in the race: Jensen led on early ballots, but the momentum shifted to Qualls when two other candidates left the race.
Former state Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka was dropped from contention by convention rules when he failed to hit 15 percent support on the third ballot.
Gazelka threw his backing to Qualls, as did state Sen. Michelle Benson, who ended her campaign for governor two weeks before the convention.
“If you’re going to pick an outsider, pick somebody who can broaden our base.,” Gazelka told delegates as he endorsed Qualls. “We need more people into our party. Let’s win.”
Murphy got a boost when dermatologist Neil Shah dropped out and endorsed him, but not before questioning the conservative credentials of Qualls and Jensen.
"The time for a weak feckless Republican party is over in this state. We will put the DFL on their heels punch them in the mouth and continue to punch them in the mouth for the next decade until we have saved Minnesota."
Before the balloting, the candidates for the party nod made final appeals, with splashy videos, blaring theme music and testimonials ahead of their entrances. All five told delegates they’re best-positioned to defeat Walz in November.
Jensen, who has been in the race the longest and was seen as the front-runner coming in, stressed to the convention that he hasn’t shied from the fight even if his COVID-19 skepticism has attracted criticism.
“I dared to lead when it wasn’t popular,” Jensen said. “I dared to lead when it wasn’t politically safe.”
Qualls offered his biography that brought him from a childhood in Harlem to a career in business. Selling himself as an outsider, Qualls promised to slash taxes, regulations and reduce the emphasis on race in education.
“I want to help make Minnesota become the freedom loving, liberty hugging, wealth creating state in the nation,” Qualls said, adding, “Their worst fear is a proud black man who draws his identity from God and family over skin tone. A man a man who believes in personal responsibility not government dependency, a businessman who believes in the power of free market enterprise.”
Murphy had a surprisingly strong first-ballot showing. It came after a fiery speech in which he said he was the most ardent supporters of gun rights, health freedom and other measures of liberty. That’s a big sell to the convention audience.
“I will never compromise. I will never surrender and I will never retreat and you better believe that we will make Minnesota great again,” Murphy said, throwing on a red Make America Great Again hat made popular by former President Donald Trump.