It is the political dilemma of partisan politics in Minnesota and nationally: To win endorsements and primary elections, candidates have to tack toward their party bases — conservative for Republicans and progressive for members of the DFL. Then, if successful, the same candidates have to try to appeal to moderate voters who usually decide who wins in November.
Both parties tend to attract delegates — the people who end up deciding on each party’s endorsement — from their flanks, making their respective conventions more conservative or more liberal than even the parties’ primary election voters, and much more so than general election voters.
But the partisan gymnastics can be more strenuous for Republicans in Minnesota, mostly because of the party’s success at getting rank and file voters to support the candidate endorsed at their conventions. Not since 1994 has a non-endorsed GOP candidate bucked that process and won at the primary. That sort of party discipline is far less common in the DFL; the last two DFL governors both won the party’s nomination over the endorsed candidate.
All of which means that the endorsement is more valuable for Republicans than it is for DFLers.
This cycle, Republican candidates for governor of Minnesota — at least the five who sought the party endorsement Saturday — spent months campaigning among the most active party adherents. Ultimately, 1,344 of the 2,200 delegates from across the state decided that former state Sen. Scott Jensen would be the party’s endorsed candidate for governor, choosing him over current state Sen. Paul Gazelka, businessman and former congressional candidate Kendall Qualls, Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy and dermatologist Neil Shah.
While Jensen could face opposition in the August GOP primary — former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek did not seek the endorsement and hasn’t said whether he will file for the office — the endorsement makes it very likely that Jensen will prevail then and face incumbent Gov. Tim Walz in November.
All five candidates who vied for the endorsement ran as conservatives. All five questioned the integrity of the 2020 election. All five were critical of Walz’s actions during the pandemic and his management of riots following the murder of George Floyd. All oppose abortion rights. All endorse gun rights.
Yet it was a convention rule that exacerbated the need for the candidates to stake out the most-conservative positions to even compete for the endorsement.
Once candidates are placed into nomination and once each takes 15 minutes to present themselves to delegates via a combination of videos, endorsement and a convention address, a vote is held. Then, if none of the candidates receives 60 percent of the vote, each gets to speak again for three minutes. Only when a candidate is eliminated for having the lowest vote total or withdraws do they no longer get to speak.
The time between ballots gave time for person-to-person campaigning among the delegates in Rochester’s Mayo Civic Center, while the subsequent speeches gave the candidates a chance to address the concerns they’d heard from those on the floor. Saturday, they frequently attempted to prove their conservative bona fides and refute allegations that they would fall short of delegates’ expectations.
“I’ve been a pro-life activist since I was a teenager,” said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, herself a former candidate for governor. “If you have a question about Kendall Qualls and his stand on life issues, ask me. I’ve seen him and Sheila behind the scenes. I’ve listened to stories they haven’t told you.”
In a later address aimed at quelling more of those questions about his anti-abortion credentials, Qualls jettisoned prominent supporter Michele Tafoya, the recently retired NBC sports reporter who was his campaign co-chair but who has said in interviews that she supports abortion rights.
“Michele Tafoya is not going to be my lieutenant governor, I want to make sure I dismiss that,” Qualls said. “We’re going to have a lieutenant governor who has our values, that are consistent: A pro-life, 2nd Amendment conservative that wants to return our country back to a constitutional, patriotic way of living.”
In one of his speeches, Jensen used his time to refute complaints that he’d worked for Planned Parenthood during his medical training. “I’ve never seen an abortion. I’ve never done an abortion and I wouldn’t,” Jensen said.
Dermatologist Neil Shah, who later endorsed Murphy and then Jensen, used some of his time to criticize Qualls for saying he would limit emergency declarations to 30 days. Shah supports the “never again” movement that opposes all emergency declarations, which give governors authority to take executive action without legislative approval.
Murphy frequently touted his position against COVID-19 safety protocols, terming it “COVID nonsense” and saying he had declared the 4,500-person Lexington a health freedom sanctuary. But in one return to the stage, he introduced Mark Bishofsky, the conservative founder of Stop The Mandate Minnesota, who led a protest at the governor’s mansion.
“Most of us are first-time candidates here,” Bishofsky said. “It’s time we brought some real change to St. Paul. Come with me and endorse Mike Murphy.”
Jensen was vulnerable on the issue of gun rights because he once cosponsored a gun-safety bill with DFL senators. To counter that at the convention, he first endorsed stand-your-ground legislation that would say a gun owner has no duty to retreat when threatened. At one point, he also said he would prefer his daughter “shoot the dang felon” if confronted with a carjacker than try to escape.
Later, he apologized for even considering a conversation on gun safety bills. “I put myself on the wrong side of the gun issue by thinking I could compel a conversation by putting my name on a bill and removing it six weeks later,” Jensen said. “That was a mistake and I’m sorry and I won’t ever do it again.”
Jensen also played to the belief shared by many of the delegates that the 2020 election results were inaccurate and manipulated. “I will shut down the government to get election security,” he said. “We are going to have voter ID.”
He also repeated his assertion that Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon would be jailed, that “he should know what he looks like in stripes.”
In his initial speech, Gazelka, the most politically experienced of the candidates — and likely the most pragmatic — had seemed to warn against the subsequent competition to be the most anti-abortion rights, the most pro-gun rights, the loudest complainant about the 2020 vote count.
“In order to win in November, we need to run on two issues that properly and deeply worry every Minnesotan in every corner of the state,” Gazelka said. “It’s crime and it’s the economy. Think of all the lost purchasing power. Think about the fact that you can’t even buy formula right now. That’s Tim Walz and Joe Biden. We can win on a wave in November on these two issues.”
After securing the endorsement on the ninth ballot, Jensen was asked how he would now attract voters who aren’t conservatives. “I think what changes is the emphasis,” Jensen said. “When you’re campaigning for a delegate convention there are certain types of issues, certain purity tests if you will, that have to be addressed in some way or another that doesn’t get you in trouble.
“Once you get the endorsement, I think you can broaden your platform. You can start to talk about: What does consumer protection look like? What does corporate responsibility look like? What’s the Republican perspective on how do we conserve water and protect our aquifers and what’s our position on the environment?
“New issues will be brought into the mix,” he said.