Sep 2, 2021 - Politics
GOP race for Minnesota governor takes shape
michelle benson paul gazelka scott jensen
Left to right: Michelle Benson, Paul Gazelka and Scott Jensen are likely frontrunners for the Minnesota GOP gubernatorial nomination. Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Legislature

Minnesota's GOP gubernatorial candidates are jockeying for attention and support as the field fills out ahead of the 2022 midterms.

Driving the news: Michelle Benson, a GOP state senator from Ham Lake, announced her candidacy on Wednesday with a carefully orchestrated rollout that included a video and a news conference outside a Blaine equipment company.

  • Hours before Benson took the stage, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-East Gull Lake) announced he was giving up his leadership post ahead of his own expected run. He told reporters he's leaning toward it.

Why it matters: The winner of the primary will seek to end the GOP's 16-year losing streak statewide as they take on DFL Gov. Tim Walz on the November 2022 ballot.

State of play: Benson and Gazelka will be two of the better-known candidates in what's expected to be a crowded race, bringing legislative experience, seasoned political advisers and fundraising connections to the table.

Yes, but: Another former Senate colleague with a large following and lots of cash is also vying for the nomination.

  • Scott Jensen, a doctor and former senator from Chaska, says he has raised more than $750,000 in campaign funds and signed up 1,400 volunteers to help with the endorsement process since announcing his bid in March.

What they're saying: Benson, who hasn't secured any delegate commitments yet, acknowledged that the crowded contest "isn't going to be an easy path," but said she'll do what it takes to emerge the victor.

  • "I can get the most votes," she said. "And I can win."

What to watch: Expect COVID-19 and crime to be common themes across the campaigns, as candidates woo base voters on the right.

  • Benson said Walz's use of executive power and what she called "medical freedom" from COVID-19 vaccine mandates are top issues energizing Republican voters right now.
  • Her launch video also touched on issues including school closures and the movement to defund police.

Between the lines: Unlike Democrats, Republican voters have backed their endorsed candidate in the primary in recent elections.

  • Benson said she plans to abide by the endorsement, meaning she would agree to drop out if she doesn't win support from party delegates. But she left the door open to change her position later.
  • "There's changes going on in the [state] GOP so we'll evaluate as we go," she said, noting that there's no party chair at this time. Whether other candidates abide could also be a factor, she added.

The wild card? A new independent political committee is pushing for a run by Kendall Qualls, a businessman and nonprofit leader who ran against DFL Rep. Dean Phillips in the western suburbs in 2020.

  • Qualls doesn't have experience in political office, but he attracted interest from national Republicans and donors in his last race.
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