MN Republicans struggle to endorse for governor

ROCHESTER, Minn. — With an optimistic eye toward November’s elections, Minnesota Republican die-hards Saturday struggled to reach consensus on which candidate they most want to face Gov. Tim Walz.

After two ballots at the state convention inside the Rochester Mayo Civic Center, former state senator Scott Jensen held a narrow lead over former health care executive Kendall Qualls, followed by Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy, dermatologist Neil Shah, and state Sen. Paul Gazelka.

Jensen had 29 percent of the vote among 2,200 delegates, a far cry from the 60 percent needed to secure the endorsement. That made the floor of the convention fertile ground for jockeying, haranguing and rallying in attempts to sway voters from one camp to another.

As the ballots continue, according to the convention’s rules, low-performing candidates will be dropped from the contest, increasing the likelihood that someone will reach the 60 percent threshold before a 6 p.m. deadline. However, the prospect of no endorsement — an outcome some candidates and delegates might favor — also hung in the air.

Before the third ballot, Shah urged his supporters to vote for Murphy — the first vote-shifting maneuver of the day.

Former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek chose not to attend the convention or seek the endorsement, ensuring an August primary.

Saturday’s action came a day after Republicans endorsed political newcomer Jim Schultz for state attorney general, conservative lawyer Kim Crockett for secretary of state and Ryan Wilson for state auditor.

In his appeal to delegates, Jensen, a former state senator and family physician from Chaska, repeated his questionable claims that COVID deaths had been inflated. Criticism of coronavirus policies and vaccine skepticism have been a cornerstone of Jensen’s campaign, which jumped out to an early fundraising lead as he spread his message on social media, finding purchase among COVID doubters. On Saturday, he also repeated his suggestion that Secretary of State Steve Simon be jailed, although he’s never articulated specifics about any unusual level of fraud during the 2020 election.

Qualls, a former health care executive and Army veteran, on Saturday leaned heavily into his identity as a Christian Black Republican raised in Harlem, arguing it positions him best to defeat Walz in a general election. “My life is a testament to the failure of their agenda,” he said in a speech to delegates, adding later: “I think Black people and all minorities are sick and tired of white liberals telling us what we should be proud of … and how we should vote.”

Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy’s message to delegates focused on rising crime, the Minneapolis riots, and “COVID nonsense.” Murphy had sought to position himself as the biggest champion of gun rights in the field. As mayor, he declared Lexington a “Second Amendment Sanctuary City.”

Shah, a dermatologist from North Oaks and the child of Indian immigrants, called Walz a “fraud in flannel.” He leaned heavily into culture war issues in his address to delegates Saturday, at one point saying that when he graduated high school in 1998, “boys were boys, girls were girls, and the color of your skin did not matter.”

In his speech, Gazelka — the least impassioned speaker and arguably the most moderate in the field — appealed primarily to reason. The state senator from East Gull Lake argued that during his three years as Senate majority leader, he served as the state’s only bulwark against the agenda of Walz and the DFL-controlled House. Gazelka was the most “establishment” of all the candidates; he had a decent base of support from colleagues in the Legislature and the endorsement of the Minneapolis Police and Peace Officers Association.

Legally speaking, party endorsements mean nothing. Candidates still have until May 31 to file for their names to appear on the Aug. 9 primary ballots. The primary winners will face off in the Nov. 8 general election.

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