Phillips draws GOP challenger for west Twin Cities metro seat

Kendall Qualls, a Republican medical technology executive, will challenge first-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips in a battleground district in the western suburbs.

The third congressional district had been solidly Republican for decades before Democrats flipped it in 2018. The race saw $22 million spent, becoming the most expensive congressional campaign in state history.

Qualls, a U.S. Army veteran and businessman, announced his candidacy in a biography video Monday. In an interview, he said he would campaign with President Donald Trump if the president came to the western suburbs.

“I agree with the policies that he’s put in place,” Qualls said. “Our styles are different. OK? If anything, I believe that voters appreciate, how do we solve the big problems in our country, and how do we come back together?”

In opinion polls, Trump was a liability for former Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, who steered clear of the president and twice declined to campaign with him in Minnesota. 

Qualls said he was raised poor in Harlem and then Oklahoma, before joining the U.S. Army. He is a self-described newcomer to Minnesota, and his LinkedIn page shows he was an executive at companies inside and outside the state. 

Richard Carlbom, Phillips’ campaign manager, knocked Qualls’ newcomer status.

“We welcome Mr. Qualls to Minnesota and to the race for Congress in Minnesota’s third district,” Carlbom said in an email last week when Qualls filed his campaign paperwork. “Everyone’s invited to this conversation and we look forward to each candidate sharing their views.”

In his response, Qualls pointed to Attorney General Keith Ellison and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, both of whom were born outside Minnesota.

“If there’s room in this state for a lawyer from Detroit to be attorney general, a refugee who’s now a (U.S.) citizen from Somalia to be a representative in Congress, is there room in this state for a veteran who served here and overseas?” he said.

Qualls questioned Phillips’ leadership abilities and said Phillips has not been forceful enough in condemning controversial comments from Omar. He also said Phillips – who is independently wealthy – came from “privilege.” 

Qualls said he wouldn’t wish his own upbringing in Harlem “on my worst enemies.” He said he frequently was forced to defend himself in elementary school and said his family’s apartment building elevator worked only half the time.

He said he did not view President Trump’s recent description of Baltimore, Maryland as a “rodent-infested mess” as racist.

“Unfortunately, in a lot of those communities, we’ve normalized that condition,” Qualls said. “And that needs to change.”