Scott Jensen wins Minnesota Republicans' endorsement for governor

Minnesota Republicans endorsed Scott Jensen for governor on Saturday during a convention that included allegations of dirty campaigning between second and third-place candidates.

Jensen, a family practice doctor from Chaska, received 65 percent on the ninth ballot against 33 percent for Kendall Qualls after a series of votes that saw three different candidates briefly take the lead. Jensen will face DFL Gov. Tim Walz in this fall's general election unless one of Jensen's Republican rivals force a primary.

"It's we the people. Let’s go from here and let’s send a clear message to Tim Walz," Jensen said in a brief victory speech. "Game over, Tim Walz! Game over!"

Jensen's victory ended concerns among Republicans that they would deadlock and leave their convention without an endorsement. Those fears were heightened during back-and-forth accusations between Qualls and rival Mike Murphy. 

Murphy, who was in third place after the sixth round of balloting, threw his support behind Jensen and accused Qualls of offering him the lieutenant governor slot before taking it back.

"Kendall is a sellout and I’m glad I didn’t (take it). Scott Jensen for governor!" Murphy told delegates, grabbing Jensen's hand and holding it aloft on stage.

With Murphy's delegates in tow, Jensen surged to the lead at 59 percent, just below the 60 percent threshold needed to win the party's endorsement.

Then Qualls took the stage and refuted Murphy's accusations.

"No offer was ever made to Mike Murphy. Not one," Qualls said, telling delegates that Murphy had come to his war room at the convention seeking a job in his administration. "Because he didn't get his way, he stormed out and went straight to Scott Jensen."

Qualls did not give a concession speech or appear on stage with Jensen after the endorsement was settled. Afterward, he issued a statement saying that he would not force a primary and would transition back to private life. 

Speaking with reporters afterward, Jensen said he reached out to get Qualls on stage but hasn't heard from him since the controversy involving Murphy. He was uncertain if someone would force a primary.

"If there is a primary, bring it on," Jensen said.

GOP Chairman David Hann, addressing reporters after Jensen's endorsement, said that all candidates have told him privately that they would abide by the endorsement.

""As far as I know, no one is going to a primary," Hann said, though he said he hadn't spoken with the campaign of former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, who did not appear at the convention following a car crash last month.

Jensen has staked out several controversial positions over more than a year in the race. He has questioned the accuracy of COVID-19 death counts and the effectiveness of vaccines. Recently, he suggested Secretary of State Steve Simon could be jailed for agreeing to loosen absentee voting rules during the 2020 election.

Minnesota Democrats blasted Jensen in a Saturday evening statement.

"Republicans have chosen the most extreme and dangerous candidate to lead their party in the fall," DFL Chairman Ken Martin said. "This fall, voters will have a clear choice between Scott Jensen's extremism and Gov. Walz's responsible leadership."

The Jensen campaign has poured cash into advertising at the convention, handing out "Jensen 22" football jerseys and paying to have two omnipresent logos for Jensen and running mate Matt Birk projected onto the walls of the convention hall. The campaign hosted a large block party for delegates on Friday night.

Dermatologist Neil Shah was the first to drop out of the running after two rounds of balloting. Shah threw his support to Murphy, torching Jensen in a speech as a "gun-grabber."

Jensen, who co-sponsored a gun control bill during his time in the state Senate, later apologized in a speech to delegates and said he was merely trying to start a conversation.

Next to drop was state Sen. Paul Gazelka, who acknowledged that delegates wanted an outsider candidate instead of someone with a long political career. Gazelka then backed Qualls.

That set the stage for the dustup between Qualls and Murphy on Saturday afternoon.

On Friday, Republicans endorsed candidates for attorney general, secretary of state, and auditor while avoiding the chaos that some had feared.

Republicans endorsed Jim Schultz for attorney general after four rounds of balloting. Schultz overcame Doug Wardlow, the GOP's endorsed candidate in 2018, after rival Tad Jude dropped out after the second round and endorsed Schultz. 

But Wardlow did not immediately back Schultz, tweeting that he would "reflect and pray about the next steps for our campaign." Another Republican candidate, Dennis Smith, has said he plans to force an August primary.

Delegates chose Kim Crockett for secretary of state on the second round of balloting, defeating Kelly Jahner-Byrne. Republicans' first endorsement was Maple Grove attorney Ryan Wilson for state auditor. Wilson was unopposed.

Perhaps the biggest winner of the first day was the party's chairman, Hann, who kicked off the convention with a stern warning to the 2,200 delegates that failing to endorse candidates this weekend "puts our election success at considerable risk of failure." Delegates seemed to agree, rejecting a move to paper ballots, which would have slowed voting considerably.