MN Republicans struggle to endorse for governor

ROCHESTER, Minn. — With an optimistic eye toward November’s elections, Minnesota Republican die-hards struggled throught the day Saturday to reach consensus on which candidate they most want to face Gov. Tim Walz, with tensions, passions and drama growing as the day wore on.

After six ballots, a two-way battle remained, but former health care executive Kendall Qualls had grown his lead over former state Sen. Scott Jensen and Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy, who then threw his support behind Jensen. Qualls’ 43 percent percent was still far below the 60 percent threshold needed to secure an endorsement from the 2,200 delegates.

Murphy’s endorsement of Jensen created a crescendo of drama. He said Qualls had offered him the open slot to be his running mate but then revoked it after Murphy inquired what Qualls envisioned as Murphy’s role.

“Kendall’s a sell-out!” Murphy boomed from the stage as he threw his support behind Jensen.

After two ballots at the state convention inside the Rochester Mayo Civic Center, Jensen had held a narrow lead over Qualls, followed by Murphy, dermatologist Neil Shah, and state Sen. Paul Gazelka. Then Shah threw his support behind Murphy, upending the field, and Gazelka was doomed to be dropped from the ballot for not garnering enough support.

Before voting on the fourth ballot, Gazelka and former candidate, state Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, threw their support behind Qualls.

By then, the floor of the convention had become fertile ground for jockeying, haranguing and rallying in attempts to sway voters from one camp to another. In successive speeches, candidates found themselves defending their conservative credentials on issues like abortion opposition and gun rights, while also arguing they could garner widespread support in a general election.

The convention faced a 6 p.m. deadline to finish its business. However, the prospect of no endorsement — an outcome some candidates and delegates might favor — also hung in the air.

Former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek chose not to attend the convention or seek the endorsement but has not ended his campaign, raising the prospect of an August primary. The other candidates have all pledged to abide by the endorsement, although candidates have been known to break that pledge.

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.

PARTY TENSIONS

While much of the two-day convention featured Republicans avoiding pitfalls of infighting between traditional conservatives and more fiery Trump-era elements, in the end, the final choice for governor featured some of those tensions.

As the ballots wore on, Qualls’ camp absorbed large swaths of the traditional Republican establishment, most notably with endorsements by Gazelka and Benson, who carried with them many Republican veterans in the Legislature.

Jensen’s supporters appeared to remain largely intact from well before the convention, when his message of COVID skepticism — not shouted but delivered with the earnest demeanor of a family doctor — gained his huge advantages in fund raising and exposure.

Murphy’s camp, which absorbed the supporters of Shah, appeared to represent the hardest-right wing of the delegates. “The establishment is attacking me because they don’t want a conservative outsider candidate who fights for the people,” Murphy said.

At least some of Murphy’s supporters resisted calls to join Jensen’s camp because, as a lawmaker, he once co-sponsored a bill to enact red flag laws that could take guns away from people in crisis — a move that has dogged his campaign among some gun rights activists.

As he accepted Murphy’s support Saturday, Jensen noted that he removed his name from the bill six weeks later, and told the delegates that his initial support “was a mistake, and I’m sorry.”

WHAT THE CANDIDATES SAID

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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