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‘The same tired talking points’: Minnesota Republicans wrestle with how to appeal to more urban, suburban voters

A common theme at the state Republican convention was electability — how the party can win more votes in DFL-friendly Minneapolis, St. Paul and the surrounding suburbs, where most voters don’t support many of the policies GOP candidates for governor have campaigned on. 

The roughly 2,200 delegates endorsed Scott Jensen, shown with running mate Matt Birk at right, after a dramatic nine rounds of voting.
The roughly 2,200 delegates endorsed Scott Jensen for governor, shown with running mate Matt Birk at right, after a dramatic nine rounds of voting.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

At the Minnesota Republican convention in Rochester on Saturday, candidates for governor spoke at length about their priorities to address crime, reduce abortion access, change election law and relax gun regulations.

But another common theme among the candidates and their supporters was electability, particularly their case for winning more votes in DFL-friendly Minneapolis, St. Paul and the surrounding suburbs, where many voters don’t support those same policies Republican candidates outlined in their speeches.

The GOP is strong in Greater Minnesota but has struggled in much of the Twin Cities metro area, particularly since Trump’s election in 2016. It’s a central reason the party hasn’t won a race for governor, or any statewide elected office, since Tim Pawlenty did in 2006.

The roughly 2,200 Republican delegates endorsed Scott Jensen, a one-term state Senator from Chaska and family physician, for the top of the ticket after a dramatic nine rounds of voting. In the middle of that fierce endorsement fight, state Sen. Julia Coleman, R-Waconia, pitched Jensen to the crowd by saying he helped her win a key demographic in a 2020 legislative race.

“He has gotten women out in the suburbs like I have never seen before,” Coleman said.

“You’re white, you’re old.”

The GOP’s statewide losing streak was top of mind for many at the convention. The party even played a video for the crowd multiple times arguing that endorsing a candidate rather than relying on a lengthy primary race will help the party unite, centralize resources and better prepare to face Gov. Tim Walz.

“Winning a statewide election in Minnesota is difficult, we don’t have to make it harder than it already is,” the video said.

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One gubernatorial candidate, Neil Shah, a dermatologist from the Twin Cities, criticized other candidates, including Jensen, for being too accommodating on issues like gun regulations and a governor’s ability to use emergency powers — issues that are often popular in urban areas. And Shah opened the day by telling the crowd that the DFL has been “hollowing out the urban core for decades,” by “pulling the fathers out of homes, substituting gangs, crime and drugs and doing nothing about it.”

Neil Shah criticized other candidates, including Scott Jensen, for not being hard-line enough on certain policy issues, like opposing gun regulations, that are popular in urban areas.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Neil Shah criticized other candidates, including Scott Jensen, for not being hard-line enough on certain policy issues, like opposing gun regulations, that are popular in urban areas.
But he said the party must emulate Donald Trump, who Shah said did historically well in those communities because Trump was, in his view, honest, authentic, and didn’t pander like other long-time politicians. (Trump won 17.6 percent of the 2020 presidential vote in the 5th Congressional District that includes Minneapolis and much of Hennepin County, which is far worse than Mitt Romney’s 24 percent in 2012. But Trump won more total votes in some big cities like Philadelphia and Detroit than he did in 2016.)

“The same tired talking points that we have been using for the last 70 years are not going to get it done in CD 4 and 5,” Shah said. “We need someone who is going to honestly have conversations and bring capital to those areas, and get those people the jobs they need, secure their streets and improve their schools. I am the only candidate who can do that.”

The 2018 Republican candidate for governor, Jeff Johnson, got 30.5 percent of the vote in the 4th Congressional district and just 18 percent of the vote in the 5th District.

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Another candidate, state Sen. Paul Gazelka, an East Gull Lake Republican who was previously the Senate’s majority leader, said he would have a broad conservative agenda as governor that included permanent tax cuts and putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot to overturn a state Supreme Court ruling upholding abortion access. But during the campaign, Gazelka said Republicans need to focus on just two issues that are more broadly popular.

“It’s crime and it’s the economy,” Gazelka. “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.”

State Sen. Paul Gazelka: “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.”
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
State Sen. Paul Gazelka: “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.”
Army veteran and former business executive Kendall Qualls campaigned with a heavy focus on his background as a Black Republican who grew up poor in Harlem and in a trailer park in Oklahoma. He said Democrats didn’t stop crime or riots after the murder of George Floyd and that they fear a “proud Black man that draws his identity from God and family over skin color.” 

Qualls lives in the exurban Hennepin County city of Medina and ran for Congress against U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips in the largely suburban 3rd Congressional District in 2020, when he got about 44 percent of the vote. Trump got 39 percent in the district that year.

Gazelka eventually endorsed Qualls after dropping among the delegates. He told the crowd that if they were going to pick an “outsider candidate,” they should “pick somebody who can actually broaden our base.”

Kendall Qualls had a heavy focus on his background as a Black Republican who grew up poor in Harlem and in a trailer park in Oklahoma.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Kendall Qualls had a heavy focus on his background as a Black Republican who grew up poor in Harlem and in a trailer park in Oklahoma.
Mike Murphy, the mayor of the small Anoka County city of Lexington, pledged to never compromise, surrender or retreat from his principles, saying he hoped to make Minnesota a “sanctuary” state free of COVID-19 regulations like mask mandates or vaccine mandates from public or private employers. He also falsely claimed U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar stole the 2020 election in the 5th Congressional District from his running mate, Lacy Johnson. (Johnson lost by more than 153,000 votes.)

But Johnson, a Black man, argued he could win over voters where he lives on the northside of Minneapolis. He said Democratic policies have “made us feeble and created a culture of dependency and poverty,” and left people with bad schools, destroyed families and took residents “away from God.”

“When we consider what we’re up against we’re going to have to swing those votes,” Johnson said. “The way we’re going to swing those votes is by changing their lives and making their lives better.”

Mike Murphy
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Mike Murphy pledged to never compromise, surrender or retreat from his principles, saying he hoped to make Minnesota a “sanctuary” state free of COVID-19 regulations like mask mandates or vaccine mandates from public or private employers.
Later in the convention, when it was clear Murphy didn’t have enough support to get the endorsement, Johnson lambasted the crowd of delegates, saying the GOP needs a more diverse base and can’t “keep doing what you’re doing.”

“Look around you, this is what the Republican party looks like,” Johnson said. 

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The crowd cheered before Johnson continued: “You’re white, you’re old.”

Johnson said delegates “don’t appreciate what it takes for a person who has been voting Democrat all their lives to walk into that booth and vote Republican. It’s a lot tougher than you think.

“I had this crazy idea that if I showed the Republican party that it didn’t have to be like that, you guys would appreciate it and get behind me,” Johnson said.

Delegates had an opportunity to pick one of four tickets including a person of color or a woman. But in the end, they sided with Jensen, who picked former Vikings center Matt Birk as his running mate. Jensen’s campaign repeatedly highlighted polls showing him trailing Walz by slimmer margins than his GOP competitors among voters.

“He draws the biggest crowds, he has raised the most money and in independent polls, Scott Jensen is closest to beating Tim Walz,” said Marty Seifert, the former Republican House Minority Leader.

Lacy Johnson: “Look around you, this is what the Republican party looks like. You’re white, you’re old.”
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Lacy Johnson: “Look around you, this is what the Republican party looks like. You’re white, you’re old.”
Birk tried to bolster the ticket’s credibility in the Twin Cities by saying he’s been in the “inner city” since 2002 working with underprivileged kids through his Hike Foundation. 

“I’m still there,” Birk said.

Jensen may still face off in a primary against Rich Stanek, the former three-term Hennepin County Sheriff, who didn’t seek the GOP endorsement on Saturday. Stanek has campaigned on a promise of reducing crime in the state, particularly in the Twin Cities and its suburbs. And he argues he’s the only candidate who has won Hennepin County voters.

“I have a real connection with the people here in the 3rd and the 5th congressional districts because I’m one of them,” Stanek said in a campaign video.