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Scott Jensen wins Republican endorsement for governor at dramatic state convention

Jensen, a one-term Minnesota state senator and family doctor who rose to national prominence as a critic of COVID-19 restrictions, prevailed over four other Republican candidates. 

Scott Jensen: “Let’s send a clear message to Tim Walz. We appreciate that you tried but we’re gonna give you early retirement. Game over, Tim Walz. Game over.”
Scott Jensen: “Let’s send a clear message to Tim Walz. We appreciate that you tried but we’re gonna give you early retirement. Game over, Tim Walz. Game over.”
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

Scott Jensen, a one-term state senator and family doctor who became a nationally known critic of COVID-19 restrictions, is the endorsed Republican candidate for governor of Minnesota. 

In a dramatic state GOP convention, the Chaska resident ended up winning 65 percent of the vote of 2,200 delegates meeting at Rochester’s Mayo Civic Center on Saturday. He will enter the August primary potentially facing former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, who did not seek the party endorsement.

The other four GOP candidates who sought the endorsement — Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy, state Sen. Paul Gazelka, dermatologist Neil Shah and businessman Kendall Qualls — all pledged not to run in the primary if someone else was endorsed. 

“Folks, it’s we the people,” Jensen said after taking the stage shortly before 6 p.m. “Let’s go from here, and let’s send a clear message to Tim Walz. We appreciate that you tried but we’re gonna give you early retirement. Game over, Tim Walz. Game over.”

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Jensen prevailed over four candidates but it was Kendall Qualls, an Army retiree and business person who got into the race earlier this year after running for Congress in 2020, who lasted the longest in challenging Jensen. 

Qualls talked extensively about being a Black Republican, saying Democrats’ worst fear is “a proud Black man that draws his identity from God and family over skin color.” He decried “equity audits” in government, referencing the state report on the Minneapolis Police Department documenting instances of racist behavior by police, he said Walz and other DFL officials want Minnesotans to wrongly believe Minnesota is “full of racist cops and racist people.”

“This is the least racist country in the world,” Qualls said, noting his parents and grandparents lived through the segregated Jim Crow South. “And this is the least racist time in American history.”

If he wins the primary in August, Jensen will face DFL Gov. Tim Walz, who was the target of much of the rhetoric during the convention session Saturday, which was devoted to the governor’s endorsement. On Friday, the state GOP endorsed Jim Schultz for attorney general, Kim Crockett for secretary of state and Ryan Wilson for auditor.

Kendall Qualls: “This is the least racist country in the world. And this is the least racist time in American history.”
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Kendall Qualls: “This is the least racist country in the world. And this is the least racist time in American history.”
Republican primary voters tend to honor the endorsement. Not since 1994 has a non-endorsed governor candidate won the primary, and that was incumbent Gov. Arne Carlson. That’s the only time a non-endorsed candidate for any of the statewide offices was nominated at the primary. By contrast, both Gov. Mark Dayton and Gov. Tim Walz won their first terms after beating endorsed DFLers in the primary.

A quick nine hours

Saturday’s session didn’t lack for drama.

With five candidates seeking the endorsement of the Minnesota state GOP for governor, and a winning endorsee needing 60 percent of the 2,200 delegates, someone was gonna have to drop out, someone was going to endorse a survivor, someone was going to be disappointed.

The first ballot put Jensen first, Qualls second, Murphy third, Shah fourth and Gazelka fifth. In subsequent ballots, Gazelka was dropped and endorsed Qualls, and Shah endorsed Murphy before he dropped below the threshold for staying in.

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Each endorsement gave their candidate a bump. But by the fifth ballot, Qualls was slowly rising and Murphy was falling with Jensen in between. After each ballot, the remaining candidates were allowed to speak again, each using the time to respond to rumors and criticism. Qualls used an endorsement from Sen. Michelle Benson to boost his anti-abortion bona fides; Jensen used a nod from state Rep. Jeremy Munson to stave off concerns that he wasn’t conservative enough. Murphy, by contrast, had anti-COVID lockdown activist Mark Bishofsky say he was the best to stave off any future pandemic executive actions.

State Sen. Paul Gazelka pledged not to run in the primary if someone else was endorsed.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
State Sen. Paul Gazelka pledged not to run in the primary if someone else was endorsed.
Qualls had to announce that former sportscaster Michele Tafoya would not be his running mate. Tafoya has been a supporter but has told interviewers that she supports abortion access.

The numbers moved slightly in round five, with Qualls reaching 42 percent, the most anyone had received in those five votes.

Then came the bombshell. After the sixth ballot, Murphy fell below the 20 percent threshold, with 18.6 percent, and was eliminated. That left Qualls with 43 percent and Jensen with 38 percent. 

Qualls, rather than appear on the big screen himself, displayed an endorsement of the state police officers association that had previously endorsed Gazelka. Jensen then won the endorsement of Murphy. He also apologized for co-sponsoring a gun safety bill while in the state Senate.

Standing with Jensen and Jensen’s lieutenant governor pick, former professional football player Matt Birk, Murphy alleged that Qualls offered him the lieutenant governor slot. But when Murphy asked what that would entail in a Qualls administration, he said, Qualls withdrew the offer.

Murphy called Qualls “a sellout” and endorsed Jensen. The next ballot saw Qualls’ total fall and Jensen get near to the 60 percent majority needed.

Qualls then said his integrity had been soiled and said no such offer was made and that Murphy approached the Qualls campaign to speak about what role he could play in a Qualls administration. When no offer was made, Qualls said Murphy left and went to Jensen.

The dispute led one delegate to propose not endorsing either candidate. The motion failed.

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The eighth ballot saw Jensen fall back slightly but then, during yet another round of candidate speeches, Murphy spoke with Jensen beside him. He held up his phone with a text message from Qualls’ campaign manager that appeared to offer him the No. 2 job. But when Murphy said he was playing his options for joining the Qualls or Jensen campaign before endorsing anyone, many booed.

“Lose Murphy. Lose Murphy,” some shouted. But Jensen reached 65 percent on the next ballot and was declared the endorsed candidate.

“Was I nervous when we were behind four ballots in a row?” Jensen asked. “Yeah, it made me nervous. But what made me even more nervous was I didn’t have a clue what was going to happen next.” 

Using sports metaphors that were common with a former Viking on the ticket, Jensen said at one point he asked Birk if it was the third quarter or the fourth. When told the third, Jensen said, “we had a heck of a fourth quarter and overtime.”

After the sixth ballot, Mike Murphy fell below the 20 percent threshold, with 18.6 percent, and was eliminated.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
After the sixth ballot, Mike Murphy fell below the 20 percent threshold, with 18.6 percent, and was eliminated.
Despite needing nine ballots, the process took only nine hours. Voting was relatively quick once party Chair David Hann pushed back against an effort Friday to use paper ballots — an extension of GOP allegations about voting machine-driven election fraud. While those allegations by Donald Trump and his supporters have been refuted, Hann still had to tell delegates the system was not built by the company at the center of the false allegations, Dominion Voting Systems.

“There’s always a little discord when you have a competitive convention,” Hann told reporters after Jensen was endorsed. “This year we had a lot of great candidates and so we were not expecting it to be smooth sailing, a few bumps on the road. At the end of the day, I think the convention delegates showed that they wanted an endorsement and they wanted to be unified.”

Wall-to-wall Walz

There weren’t many differences in policy or rhetoric between the five candidates seeking the endorsement. All focused on the themes of crime, election fraud, COVID interventions, public education, gun rights, abortion, Tim Walz, Tim Walz and Tim Walz. 

The applause lines often featured Ilhan Omar, Tim Walz, defund the police, Tim Walz, critical race theory in schools, Tim Walz, the teachers union, Tim Walz, the Met Council, Tim Walz, mask requirements for schools, Tim Walz, Anthony Fauci, Tim Walz, Keith Ellison and Tim Walz. 

“When I went against Tim Walz and said your modeling is flawed, when I told him his lockdown policies were ill-advised, when I chastised him for making his heroes [former New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo and [California Gov. Gavin] Newsome, I was alone,” Jensen said.

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“When Walz shut us down, locked us out of our churches and masked our children, I banned it in my community and shut it down by making my city a health freedom sanctuary city, free of all the COVID nonsense,” Murphy said of Lexington, Minnesota where he is mayor.

“If my daughter is being carjacked and she has my two grandkids in the back seat, I don’t want her trying to escape. I want her pulling out a gun and shooting the damn felon,” Jensen said. 

Murphy makes a mark

Murphy was often at the center of the convention’s drama. He started by accusing U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of stealing the 2020 election in the 5th Congressional District from his running mate Lacy Johnson “just like they stole 2020 from us.” (Johnson lost by more than 153,000 votes.)

Neil Shah endorsed Mike Murphy before he dropped below the threshold for staying in.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Neil Shah endorsed Mike Murphy before he dropped below the threshold for staying in.
“Let’s kick some ass in November,” said Murphy, who had little more than $2,000 in cash on hand for his campaign in the latest reports, up until March 31. Jensen, by contrast, had more than $774,000 on hand.

Murphy surged ahead of the field on ballot three after an endorsement from Shah, who told the crowd that Qualls hadn’t taken a tough enough stance in limiting a governor’s use of peacetime emergency powers. “The time for a weak feckless Republican party is over in this state,” Shah said. The two embraced behind the scenes afterward.  

Then, it was Murphy’s endorsement of Jensen that eventually helped Jensen win, though not until after the verbal battle with Qualls. 

Jensen rides COVID skepticism to endorsement 

As a state Senator, Jensen sometimes broke with party leaders, including by supporting the gun regulation bill and co-sponsoring a bill to legalize recreational use of marijuana despite not backing legalization.

But Jensen rose to greater prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic. He challenged COVID-19 case counts and death tolls, promoting at times false theories on social media and in TV appearances on Fox News. Jensen left the Senate, but the pandemic became central to his campaign for governor.

Jensen criticized Walz’s restrictions on businesses and gatherings during the pandemic and opposed vaccine mandates. He is unvaccinated, saying he has a measure of natural immunity from getting infected, which doctors say is not on par with full vaccination. 

The COVID-19 skepticism drew support among Republicans but has led to fierce DFL criticism that he has denied the science on the deadly disease. Efforts to suspend Jensen’s medical license failed, but in July Facebook restricted Jensen from advertising for posting content they said had been debunked by fact-checkers, and he was removed from TikTok.

He had raised by far the most money of any GOP candidate in the race, according to the latest campaign finance reports for a period ending March 31. At the convention, he threw large parties and supporters could be seen in football jerseys bearing the names of both him and Birk.

At the convention, Jensen said it was wrong to have a state Social Security tax; he criticized medical procedures on transgender teenagers; endorsed “Constitutional carry” gun laws, and said he’d try to commute the sentence of Kim Potter, the ex-Brooklyn Center officer convicted of manslaughter for fatally shooting Daunte Wright. He called for new voter identification requirements, said he’d fight for GOP priorities on election laws, made unfounded claims of voter fraud and suggested Secretary of State Steve Simon should be jailed in part for state actions on absentee ballots despite facing no allegations of criminal activity.

“I’ll shut down the government in order to get election security,” Jensen said.