ROCHESTER, Minn. — Dr. Scott Jensen, a skeptic of the government's response to COVID-19, won the Minnesota GOP's endorsement after a wild ride on Saturday to challenge Democratic Gov. Tim Walz in the November election, going over the top on the ninth ballot with 65% of the vote.
Jensen, a former state senator who led on the first two ballots, regained the lead on the seventh ballot with 59%, just below the 60% needed to claim the endorsement, once Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy backed him after being eliminated on the sixth ballot.
"Game over," Jensen told the delegates, accompanied by his running mate, former Minnesota Viking and Baltimore Raven Matt Birk, who used repeated football metaphors to fire up their supporters.
Jensen's comeback ended a surge by business executive Kendall Qualls, who fell to 33% on the final ballot after taking the lead on the fourth ballot. But Jensen hit a bump in the road when Qualls, who was trying to become the Minnesota GOP's first Black gubernatorial endorsee, told the delegates that Murphy falsely claimed that Qualls had offered to make Murphy his running mate, then took back the offer.
The claim angered some Qualls delegates and forced two extra ballots. And Qualls conspicuously did not appear on stage with Jensen for the traditional show of party unity, ending the convention on a note of discord.
But Qualls and most other candidates pledged to honor the party's endorsement and forego the right to run in the Aug. 9 GOP primary, and State Chairman David Hann told reporters he did not expect Jensen to face a serious challenge. Former President Donald Trump, still a potent force within the party, has not endorsed anyone in the Minnesota races.
"Minnesota Republicans have chosen the most extreme and dangerous candidate to lead their party in the fall," Minnesota Democratic Party Chairman Ken Martin said in a statement. "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."
Jensen, who came into the convention as the presumptive front-runner, acknowledged that he got nervous when he fell behind for four ballots in a row.
"But what made me even more nervous was that I didn't have a clue what was going to happen next," Jensen said. "And, you know, as physician the last thing you want is to be in a position where you don't have control of the situation. So it was a wild ride. I wouldn't make any bones about it."
The 2,100 delegates were aiming to complete their work by a soft 6 p.m. Saturday deadline for vacating the Rochester Mayo Civic Center, but the relatively fast and smooth electronic voting process Friday reduced 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.
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."
Jensen was repeatedly accompanied on stage by Birk, who reminded delegates that he refused to visit the White House after the Ravens' 2013 Super Bowl victory because of President Barack Obama's support for abortion rights.
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.
However, it wasn't clear Saturday if Jensen would escape a serious primary challenge. Former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, who had been seeking the endorsement, was sidelined by a recent car accident, skipped the convention while he recovers and hasn't announced a decision. Hann acknowledged he hadn't spoken recently with the Stanek campaign.
"Rich and his campaign team are evaluating all options for moving forward to beat Walz in November," his campaign said in a statement Saturday.
On 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.