ROCHESTER, Minn. (AP) — Business executive Kendall Qualls took the lead Saturday as Minnesota Republicans met to endorse a candidate to challenge Democratic Gov. Tim Walz in the November election.
Qualls, who would become the state party's first Black gubernatorial candidate if he wins the endorsement, took the lead on the fourth ballot and expanded his margin to 43% on the sixth. Dr. Scott Jensen, a vaccine skeptic and former state senator who led on the first two ballots, had 38%. Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy, who took a razor-thin lead on the third ballot, was eliminated when he slipped to 19% on the sixth ballot. A candidate needs 60% to claim the endorsement.
All had pledged to honor the party’s endorsement and forego the right to run in the Aug. 9 GOP primary, assuming there was no deadlock. Former President Donald Trump, still a potent force within the party, has not endorsed anyone in the Minnesota races.
The 2,200 delegates had to complete their work by a 6 p.m. Saturday deadline for vacating the Rochester Mayo Civic Center, but the relatively fast and smooth electronic voting process Friday appeared to reduce the chances of running out of time and leaving without an endorsement. Delegates and party leaders are hoping at least one of their candidates becomes the first Republican elected to statewide office since Gov. Tim Pawlenty was reelected in 2006.
Qualls highlighted his rise from poverty, to going to college, to becoming an Army officer and a business leader. He said his life is a testament to the failure of the Democratic agenda and shows that the American dream is still alive.
“The radical left thinks I shouldn’t be here. The media doesn’t think I should be here. Tim Walz wishes I wasn’t here at all,” Qualls said to loud applause. “And poor Joe Biden, he tells people that look like me that I’m not Black, that we’re not Black, we didn’t vote for him. Well, after voting for Donald J. Trump for president -- both times -- and I’m still Black. And I’m still Republican. And I’m going to be Joe Biden’s and Tim Walz’s worst nightmare.”
Former Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a state senator from East Gull Lake who stressed his support for law enforcement, dropped out after the third ballot and threw his support to Qualls. Sen. Michelle Benson, of Ham Lake, who had been a candidate but dropped out before the convention, joined Gazelka in backing Qualls.
Jensen, a family physician from Chaska, got the earliest start in the race and raised the most money. He built a national following as he framed his COVID-19 vaccine skepticism — and opposition to mask mandates and school and business closures — as support for medical freedom. He stressed in his speech his efforts as a state senator to stand up against the Walz administration’s handling of the pandemic.
“Everyone in this room has grasped at some level that Tim Walz has failed. He’s done. But who’s going to step forward? Who’s going to serve for the benefit, security and the protection of all the people? Who’s going to help Minnesota find its way back to be the bright and shining Star of the North?” Jensen asked in a video preceding his speech. “The answer is you.”
Murphy, the mayor of Lexington a small suburb northwest of Minneapolis, slammed Walz for both his handling of the pandemic and the sometimes destructive unrest that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.
“When Walz shut us down, locked us out of our churches and masked our children, I banned it in my city and shut it down by making my community a health freedom sanctuary city, free of all the COVID nonsense,” Murphy said. “When Walz and (President Joe) Biden attacked our Second Amendment, I defended it in my community by declaring my city a Second Amendment Sanctuary City and I will do that for the state.”
On the fourth ballot Friday night, the convention endorsed business attorney Jim Schultz for attorney general, an office Minnesota Republicans haven’t won since 1968. He's hoping to oust incumbent Keith Ellison, a former congressman who led the prosecution team that won the murder conviction of ex-Officer Derek Chauvin in Floyd's death.
Schultz defeated Doug Wardlow, who was the party's candidate in 2018 and is general counsel at MyPillow. That company's CEO, Mike Lindell, has risen to national prominence for perpetuating the false claim that Trump won the 2020 election. Also losing were former Washington County judge Tad Jude and attorney Lynne Torgerson. Former legislator Dennis Smith plans to challenge Schultz in the GOP primary.