When Tim Walz ran for governor in 2018, he pledged to unite the whole state — bridging an urban-rural divide as a Mankato Democrat who would help Greater Minnesota as much as the Twin Cities metro.
On the 2018 campaign trail, Walz, who hunts and often wears camouflage hats, T-shirts, jeans and plaid, touted work on rural issues representing southern Minnesota in Congress for 12 years and his football coaching credentials along with promoting other parts of his agenda. He bragged about being able to fix the clutch on his truck and promised to boost a state subsidy for local governments that benefits Greater Minnesota. “I don’t have to travel to Greater Minnesota, I wake up there,” Walz said on Twitter in October that year.
His message fared reasonably well in Greater Minnesota. While Walz lost the vote outside of the Twin Cities metro, he did better in Greater Minnesota than some fellow Democrats like U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and Attorney General Keith Ellison. Statewide, Walz beat Republican Jeff Johnson by 11.4 percentage points.
Four years later, the governor wakes up in St. Paul. And his new Republican opponent, physician and former state Sen. Scott Jensen, hopes to make larger inroads outside the metro en route to the governor’s office, painting Walz as a failure for Greater Minnesota who simply doesn’t understand rural people.
Jensen has pitched a plan for rural prosperity and electrified many by sparring with the governor over other issues: COVID-19 emergency powers, the governor’s adoption of California’s auto emissions standards or even the attitude of “arrogant urbanites” toward farmers.
Statewide elections in Minnesota are typically won and lost in the suburbs. And it’s no secret Jensen is hoping to win over voters in the metro. But Jensen maintains a bigger win in Greater Minnesota would make a sincere difference.
“If we can capture Greater Minnesota not at 60-40, but at 70-30, the world changes,” Jensen said in an interview.
In 2018, Walz won 44.6 percent of the vote outside of the seven-county metro area. That compares to just 35 percent support in Greater Minnesota for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and 39.5 percent for Joe Biden in 2020.
Those numbers illustrate the challenge and opportunity for Jensen – challenge because Clinton and Biden still won the state, and opportunity because there is likely room for improvement for Jensen over Johnson’s performance in 2018. The seven-county Twin Cities metro has roughly 405,000 more registered voters than Greater Minnesota, according to data from the Secretary of State.
If voters in the metro behave similarly to past elections, Jensen would have to outperform former President Donald Trump in Greater Minnesota by a significant margin. So how has Jensen campaigned to win an enormous advantage in Greater Minnesota?
Jensen’s plan for rural success
At rallies and events, the Republican often starts by emphasizing his rural roots.
Jensen lives in Chaska, a southwest metro suburb in Carver County. But he was raised in the small southern Minnesota city of Sleepy Eye.
“Sleepy Eye was a wonderful place to grow up,” Jensen told a crowd of roughly 150 people at a VFW in Fergus Falls last week. “We had values, we knew who we were, and we recognized that sometimes it really does take a village to raise a child.”
At Farmfest in August, the former one-term state senator told reporters about walking fields for rocks, baling hay and milking cows before putting himself through college working at Del Monte in Sleepy Eye — which he joked was a huge promotion. “I know what ag looks like,” Jensen said.
Jensen’s Greater Minnesota prosperity plan he unveiled at Farmfest includes a promise to issue permits faster, helping end what Republicans have said is an overbearing government that has burdened agribusiness and others.
Jensen also pledged to build more rural roads, expand a tax credit for beginning farmers, promote and fund “value-added crops” that bring environmental and economic benefits, boost ethanol, subsidize more broadband infrastructure and pay for animal disease prevention efforts. Jensen promised to alter Minnesota’s estate tax in an effort to help people hand down farms and equipment.
He also said he would appoint more people from rural Minnesota to cabinet positions or other high-level staff jobs. Jensen has claimed a “token” few people from outside the Twin Cities metro hold top state government jobs under Walz.
The Jensen proposal has resonated with rural lawmakers like Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Alexandria, who said Jensen’s plans for spending more on broadband infrastructure and the candidate’s tax policies would help rural Minnesotans the most.
But Westrom also said speeding up permits is critical, arguing Minnesota under Jensen won’t have another repeat of Tru Shrimp moving its plant from Luverne to South Dakota.
“Let farmers farm, let miners mine, let teachers teach and let government get the hell out of the way,” Jensen said at the Farmfest debate.
Beyond rural-specific policy plans
Almost two months after Farmfest, at his rally in Fergus Falls, Jensen did mention some aspects of that rural plan. But he spent more time on common GOP themes like increased violent crime in the metro area and in Greater Minnesota, government response to riots after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the rising costs of gas, groceries and heating fuel.
A comment Walz made in 2017 describing parts of rural Minnesota as “mostly rocks and cows” has been one of Jensen’s favorite plays: “I’m proud to be a rock, or a cow, or whatever you want to call me,” Jensen said at the Fergus Falls rally. (Walz maintains the remark was taken out of context and he was urging Democrats to listen to rural areas.)
Jensen also often returned to the issue that sparked his campaign in the first place: COVID-19. He said he’s passionate about “health freedom,” alluding to his opposition to vaccine mandates.
At the start of the pandemic, Jensen’s questioning of death tolls led to appearances on Fox News and other conservative media outlets. He has promoted unproven COVID-19 treatments, opted against getting vaccinated because he previously contracted the disease and has doubted the safety or efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines — though Jensen says the vast majority of his older patients with underlying medical conditions were vaccinated. His spread of false information about the pandemic sparked investigations of his medical license, though Jensen says the state’s Board of Medical Practice hasn’t disciplined him. And Jensen argued Walz’s restrictions on businesses were often arbitrary, nonsensical and harmful to the economy.
“There’s a cultural war being fought on this political landscape this time around, and we’ve got to stop it,” Jensen said in Fergus Falls, before referencing COVID-19 regulations. “We lost a ton of businesses. You remember how dark it was … You couldn’t go to church but you could go to the big-box liquor store.”
The Republican nominee also criticized Walz for adopting tougher vehicle emission standards that match California regulations and said the “broken” education system indoctrinates kids and is more focused on race and “whether you’re oppressed” than teaching the value of hard work or basic subjects like math, reading and writing. He called for more homeschooling, private schools and charter schools and to “honor teachers that are in our K-12 public schools” because they’re unhappy with the status quo as well.
When an audience member asked for Jensen’s plans to ensure the election is legitimate, the Republican called for a voter identification law but said in the short term his campaign hopes to have more GOP election judges than in 2020. He said the campaign will also have lawyers available to intervene “if we see something fishy happening.”
“We’re watching areas that we think might be inclined to maybe have some shenanigans go on,” Jensen said. “We’re going to try to stop that, nip it in the bud.”
Walz, for his part, has defended his record. He maintains his COVID-19 response was successful in balancing public health and the economy — a claim that some analyses back up and some don’t — during a rapidly evolving pandemic. He criticizes Jensen for debunked views on vaccines and unproven COVID-19 treatments.
Many of Jensen’s proposals for Greater Minnesota are also things Walz generally supports himself.
Under Walz, the Legislature this year approved $110 million in federal funding for broadband infrastructure, for instance, and in 2021 legislators approved $70 million. Republicans argue they fought to convince Democrats to pay for that much broadband. Still, both sums were large compared to pre-Walz broadband spending. (Congress under President Joe Biden has also approved massive amounts of money to help build high-speed internet infrastructure in rural areas of Minnesota.)
Lawmakers agreed this year to expand a tax credit for beginning farmers, but disagreements over other issues tanked the $3.8 billion tax bill. Other tax breaks to benefit farmers — as well as schools in ag-heavy areas — were in the legislation, too. Jensen had called on legislators to walk away from their broader spending and tax cut agreements, though he said he supported the tax bill.
Walz has been a supporter of cover crops, which are meant to reduce pollution for farmers while also bringing in money. And he has generally backed the biofuels industry, including by chairing the 22-state Governors’ Biofuels Coalition.
The governor criticizes Jensen’s eight-year proposal for phasing out Minnesota’s income tax, saying the resulting loss of state revenue would force lawmakers to slash money from public schools and local governments and likely make cities hike property taxes to make up for the cash. Walz’s campaign said big cities like Minneapolis could better handle that shift, while Greater Minnesota city residents would pay more.
Jensen said eliminating the income tax can be done in ways that don’t result in draconian cuts. He told supporters in Fergus Falls that he could use the state’s $12.1 billion surplus over the next three years to backfill some initial cuts to government spending if the Legislature tried to eliminate the income tax. Still, Jensen told MPR News in May he would want less money for public schools.
Walz wants more money for schools, and he argued at Farmfest for providing “necessities” like child care and broadband and boosting other amenities so people can choose to live in urban or rural areas. He touted an increase in Local Government Aid as one success for Greater Minnesota.
“We don’t just complain, and it’s not an amorphous big government thing,” Walz said. “It’s about ‘how do you solve the problem?’ That’s what the job of governor is.”
Under Walz’s tenure, Enbridge built the controversial Line 3 oil pipeline supported by many in Greater Minnesota, and the governor’s administration approved permits for PolyMet’s copper-nickel mine. Those decisions, and other policies, have earned him support from trades unions that sometimes support Republicans, including the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49.
Walz’s campaign highlighted several other accomplishments, such as the Legislature in 2019 expanding a tax credit aimed at helping rural areas with lots of farmland pay for school bonds and a law to increase fees on drug companies to pay for efforts to respond to the opioid crisis.
Walz has bristled at the idea that he doesn’t understand or connect with Greater Minnesota. In the debate, he sought to remind people that his credentials on rural policy are meaningful. “This is my 17th Farmfest,” he said.
Has Walz lost Greater Minnesota?
Back during the 2018 Democratic primary, Walz was seen as a moderate and outperformed Rep. Erin Murphy and Attorney General Lori Swanson in Greater Minnesota and the suburbs to win the DFL nomination. But being able to perform well against Jensen is another story.
In 2022, polling averages suggest that while Walz is ahead overall in the governor’s race, Jensen is ahead in Greater Minnesota, though not at the margins Jensen hopes for and might need.
A MinnPost/Change Research poll in early June found Greater Minnesota residents favoring Jensen by a 48 to 35 margin. A more recent poll in September by the Star Tribune, MPR News and Kare 11 found Jensen with roughly 50 percent support in southern and northern Minnesota, compared to 37 percent support for Walz.
Headed into the 2022 election, Walz has retained good standing with some mayors around Greater Minnesota.
One is Ben Schierer, the mayor of Fergus Falls. He said the governor came through on his promise to increase Local Government Aid and deliver more money for public schools. In 2020, the Legislature also passed a massive $1.9 billion bonding bill, which financed construction projects around the state, including work on a veterans home, national guard armory, and riverfront development in Fergus Falls. Schierer also said Walz is still running on a “One Minnesota” campaign message that isn’t solely focused on winning through strength in the Twin Cities metro.
Local Government Aid, Schierer said, “allows communities across the state to provide the services, the police and fire protection, the streets, city parks, allows cities to provide those basic core services that people expect while still maintaining property taxes that are attractive to families and businesses to live in Greater Minnesota.”
Walz has also been endorsed by Luverne Mayor Pat Baustian, who is running for state House as a Democrat, Mankato Mayor Najwa Massad, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson and leadership from seven of Minnesota’s 11 federally recognized tribes.
But there are others he’s failed to win over. Owatonna Mayor Tom Kuntz is among them. Kuntz, who has served as Owatonna’s mayor for 18 years, has watched the span of Walz’s career in Congress and as governor.
They became friends when Walz was in Congress, and Kuntz was even Walz’s guest at the 2014 State of the Union address. But Kuntz is also a Republican who voted for Jeff Johnson in 2018 and plans to vote for Jensen in part because of GOP opposition to abortion.
Walz, he said, has done a “fairly good job of listening to what southern Minnesota needs.” The now-collapsed budget deal struck between the governor and legislative leaders would have been beneficial to Owatonna, he said. The governor has tried to stand up for farmers as well, Kuntz said. And he said Walz “tries to find, a little bit more the middle of the road” politically.
But Kuntz said Walz sometimes misses the mark and is swayed by DFL leadership, dragged leftward by party politics, and is less able to be “neutral” about things as he was in Congress. He called on Walz to put greater pressure on the Republican-led Senate and the DFL-controlled House to strike a budget deal that could pass in a special session and fund things like a wastewater treatment plant in Owatonna.
While issues like Local Government Aid or a bonding bill may be a bigger deal to mayors than most voters, Kuntz said people in Owatonna often criticize Walz for closing businesses during the pandemic. And that’s where Jensen is leaning in.
“There’s a certain difference in what Greater Minnesota expects or desires from government,” Jensen told MinnPost. “I think we want government getting out of our way, and when they do interface with us we don’t want them being punitive, we want them being consultative.”
Before Jensen spoke at his event in Fergus Falls, Tim Nanson, a school board candidate and treasurer for the 7th Congressional District GOP, said in parts of Greater Minnesota like his a main strategy for Republicans would be turning out more of the party’s base by getting Jensen’s message out.
He said the focus should be on things “that really matter to people,” like rising prices, rising crime and beliefs that judges are going too easy on offenders and school boards are pushing a “political agenda.” He argued those issues can fire up the base but also perhaps attract some swing voters who might ordinarily prefer Democrats.
After Jensen’s speech, Kathleen Sieg, a retired nurse from Fergus Falls, said she voted for Jensen in the GOP primary and has been following him since first seeing him on TV in Minneapolis — and on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s show — where the candidate was arguing doctors were being forced to improperly list COVID-19 as a cause of death, inflating death tolls. (Health officials say death totals were likely higher than reported.)
Sieg said Jensen made an impression on her by coming to a rally in support of a local surgeon who the Forum News Service reported in 2021 was fired after his public opposition to a school mask mandate.
“Scott Jensen, he came to Fergus, to the rally for that surgeon,” Sieg said. “The town was outraged that our big hospital fired him.”