Scott Jensen

Former state Sen. Scott Jensen, a Chaska physician, secured the state Republican Party endorsement for governor on May 14.

ROCHESTER — After a dramatic day, former state Sen. Scott Jensen, a family physician from Chaska, secured the endorsement of the state Republican Party on Saturday to face Gov. Tim Walz in the November election.

After nine ballots, Jensen prevailed in a see-saw battle over former health care executive Kendall Qualls at the party’s state convention.

“That was wild,” Jensen told reporters after the endorsement.

Qualls left the building without conceding his loss or congratulating Jensen, denying party leaders the spectacle of a fully unified party on stage at the end of the convention. Party Chairman David Hann downplayed the issue, chalking it up to expected emotions following a hard-fought battle.

Jensen’s victory — with running mate former NFL star Matt Birk — was borne out of a successful fundraising campaign and early efforts to secure delegates, while he managed to gain support from other camps on the convention floor through old-school politicking.

“I think this is the beginning of a transparent journey together,” he said when asked for his message to Minnesota voters. “Get to know us, Matt Birk and me, and decide whether or not you like us.”

A Jensen candidacy seems almost certain to place the science of coronavirus at the fore of issues. Jensen has not only been critical of Walz’s responses to the pandemic, but he’s also flirted with misinformation, aligning himself with anti-vaccine voices, pushing a questionable theory that doctors, hospitals, and government officials have essentially conspired to inflate COVID deaths, and supporting unproven treatments for patients.

But he also brings to the field the charisma of a family physician with bedside manner; Jensen doesn’t present himself as a firebrand of anger — arguably in contrast to some of the candidates in the field he defeated, although on Saturday he repeated his suggestion that Secretary of State Scott Simon be jailed and said he would consider, if he were elected, shutting down state government to hold out for stricter election-security measures.

In response to Jensen’s victory, Ken Martin, chairman of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, issued the following statement: “Minnesota Republicans have chosen the most extreme and dangerous candidate to lead their party in the fall. In just the last two weeks, Scott Jensen has promised to ban abortion for rape victims and to throw one of his political opponents in jail. Minnesotans want their leaders to focus on helping working families, but Scott Jensen is only interested in his far-right political agenda. This fall, voters will have a clear choice between Scott Jensen’s extremism and Governor Walz’s responsible leadership.”

Democrats will hold their convention in Rochester next weekend, where Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan are expected to win the DFL endorsement.

HOW CONVENTION HAPPENED

Qualls had grown a lead over Jensen on previous ballots until the third-place candidate, Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy, threw his support behind Jensen.

Murphy’s endorsement of Jensen created a crescendo of drama. He said Qualls had offered him the open slot to be his running mate for lieutenant governor but then revoked it after Murphy inquired what Qualls envisioned as Murphy’s role.

“Kendall’s a sellout!” Murphy boomed from the stage as he threw his support behind Jensen.

Taking the stage later, Qualls disputed that. “No offer was ever made to Mike Murphy. Not one,” Qualls said. “He came into our war room … to talk about opportunities. … Because he didn’t get his way, he stormed out and went straight to Scott Jensen.”

That was followed by Murphy showing off text messages on his phone suggesting a member of Qualls’ campaign had in fact offered him the slot — turning the entire affair into a he-said-he-said.

Petty disputes are often a hallmark of political conventions, often with little ramifications afterward.

After the first two ballots inside the Rochester Mayo Civic Center, Jensen held a narrow lead over Qualls, followed by Murphy, dermatologist Neil Shah and state Sen. Paul Gazelka. Shah then threw his support behind Murphy, upending the field, and Gazelka was doomed to be dropped from the ballot for not garnering enough support.

Before voting on the fourth ballot, Gazelka and former candidate, state Sen. Michelle Benson (R-Ham Lake) threw their support behind Qualls.

By then, the floor of the convention had become fertile ground for jockeying, haranguing and rallying in attempts to sway voters from one camp to another. In successive speeches, candidates found themselves defending their conservative credentials on issues like abortion opposition and gun rights, while also arguing they could garner widespread support in a general election.

The convention faced a 6 p.m. deadline to finish its business, a deadline the convention narrowly beat.

The prospect of no endorsement had hung in the air for some time. However, an attempt Saturday evening to vote for a “no endorsement” failed overwhelmingly on a voice vote.

Former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek chose not to attend the convention or seek the endorsement but has not ended his campaign, raising the prospect of an August primary. The other candidates have all pledged to abide by the endorsement, although candidates have been known to break that pledge.

Saturday’s action came a day after Republicans endorsed political newcomer Jim Schultz for state attorney general, conservative lawyer Kim Crockett for secretary of state and Ryan Wilson for state auditor.

PARTY TENSIONS

While much of the two-day convention featured Republicans avoiding pitfalls of infighting between traditional conservatives and more fiery Trump-era elements, in the end, the final choice for governor featured some of those tensions.

As the ballots wore on, Qualls’ camp absorbed large swaths of the traditional Republican establishment, most notably with endorsements by Gazelka and Benson, who carried with them many Republican veterans in the Legislature.

Jensen’s supporters appeared to remain largely intact from well before the convention, when his message of COVID skepticism — not shouted but delivered with the earnest demeanor of a family doctor — gained him huge advantages in fundraising and exposure.

Murphy’s camp, which absorbed the supporters of Shah, appeared to represent the hardest-right wing of the delegates. “The establishment is attacking me because they don’t want a conservative outsider candidate who fights for the people,” Murphy said.

At least some of Murphy’s supporters resisted calls to join Jensen’s camp because, as a lawmaker, he once co-sponsored a bill to enact red flag laws that could take guns away from people in crisis — a move that has dogged his campaign among some gun rights activists.

As he accepted Murphy’s support Saturday, Jensen noted that he removed his name from the bill six weeks later and told the delegates that his initial support “was a mistake, and I’m sorry.”

WHAT THE CANDIDATES SAID

In his appeal to delegates, Jensen repeated his questionable claims that COVID deaths had been inflated. Criticism of coronavirus policies and vaccine skepticism have been a cornerstone of Jensen’s campaign, which jumped out to an early fundraising lead as he spread his message on social media, finding purchase among COVID doubters. On Saturday, he also repeated his suggestion that Secretary of State Steve Simon be jailed, although he’s never articulated specifics about any unusual level of fraud during the 2020 election.

Qualls, a former health care executive and Army veteran, on Saturday leaned heavily into his identity as a Christian Black Republican raised in Harlem, arguing it positions him best to defeat Walz in a general election. “My life is a testament to the failure of their agenda,” he said in a speech to delegates, adding later: “I think Black people and all minorities are sick and tired of white liberals telling us what we should be proud of … and how we should vote.”

Murphy’s message to delegates focused on rising crime, the Minneapolis riots, and “COVID nonsense.” Murphy had sought to position himself as the biggest champion of gun rights in the field. As mayor, he declared Lexington a “Second Amendment Sanctuary City.”

Shah, a dermatologist from North Oaks and the child of Indian immigrants, called Walz a “fraud in flannel.” He leaned heavily into culture war issues in his address to delegates Saturday, at one point saying that when he graduated high school in 1998, “boys were boys, girls were girls, and the color of your skin did not matter.”

Gubernatorial candidate and former Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka works the delegates to the Minnesota GOP State Convention on Saturday, May 14, 2022, at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, Minn.

In his speech, Gazelka — the least impassioned speaker and arguably the most moderate in the field — appealed primarily to reason. The state senator from East Gull Lake argued that during his three years as Senate majority leader, he served as the state’s only bulwark against the agenda of Walz and the DFL-controlled House. Gazelka was the most “establishment” of all the candidates; he had a decent base of support from colleagues in the Legislature and the endorsement of the Minneapolis Police and Peace Officers Association.

Legally speaking, party endorsements mean nothing. Candidates still have until May 31 to file for their names to appear on the Aug. 9 primary ballots. The primary winners will face off in the Nov. 8 general election.

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