Minnesota Republicans emerged from bruising endorsement battles over the weekend seeking unity as the party tries to win its first statewide races in years and expand its influence in the Legislature.
"If we do, we can win," U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer told the crowd at the state GOP convention Saturday. "If we don't, we will fight among ourselves, wasting valuable time and money. And we will risk losing our best opportunity in a decade."
Party leaders and convention delegates described this year as a key chance to take offices that have long eluded Republicans in Minnesota. Many stressed that the GOP's activist base, a subset of voters who play a critical role in building momentum, must push past internal divides and train their energy on Democrats.
But calls for unity are already being tested this week, as attorney general hopeful Doug Wardlow decided to buck his party's endorsement process and press on to the primary.
"There is a Minnesota swamp, just like there is a national swamp. It is the fear-driven RINO establishment," he said in a video, using the acronym for "Republican in name only." "It is the elites who care more about staying in power than they care about the people."
He said the result of the contest for the attorney general nod was fixed against him. The endorsed candidate Jim Schultz ran a "despicable smear campaign," Wardlow said, and has surrounded himself with "swamp creatures."
The party responded with a forceful statement that Wardlow had committed to abiding by the endorsement and called on him to end his campaign.
Divides within the party were thrown into sharp relief during the convention as Republicans spent nine rounds dueling over their gubernatorial pick — including bashing candidates' judgment, trustworthiness and insider status — before landing on former state legislator Scott Jensen.
Jensen, a Chaska physician, was one of the early entrants into the race and poured around $90,000 into winning the convention battle. Some delegates raised concerns about his bipartisan work on gun regulations and other measures at the State Capitol; others questioned whether he can appeal to a broader electorate after his more recent comments critical of COVID-19 regulations and vaccinations.
In the final hours of the convention, onstage allegations between gubernatorial candidates Kendall Qualls and firebrand Mike Murphy threatened to tarnish the party's efforts to project a united front. Murphy called Qualls a "sellout" and said he offered him the lieutenant governor's post, then backtracked, a claim that Qualls disputed.
Qualls' campaign said in a statement Saturday that he would not run in the August primary but charged that he "held the lead after two ballot rounds only to be undermined by backroom politics and a boldfaced lie used to sway delegates."
Former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, who was not part of the endorsement battle Saturday, hasn't said whether he will challenge Jensen in the GOP primary.
"I think the Republicans are going to be unified, but I think in a convention where there's winners and losers, I think it's not uncommon for misunderstandings to occur," Jensen said after winning the endorsement. "Sometimes remarks are made that, later on, people reconsider."
Despite clear differences among the Republican delegates, the drive to oust Democrats in this fall's general election was paramount to the party faithful.
"If we don't unify at this event, it's just gonna keep chaos going," Kayla Schmidt, a Traverse County commissioner and Jensen supporter, said on the convention's first day. "We need to unify, and we need to move forward."
At the convention, Republicans repeatedly attacked Democratic incumbents, including Attorney General Keith Ellison, Secretary of State Steve Simon and Gov. Tim Walz, condemning their approach to the pandemic, elections and the 2020 unrest in Minneapolis after George Floyd's murder.
Democrats quickly shot back after the GOP endorsements, including calling Jensen "the most extreme and dangerous candidate."
"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," DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said, referring to Jensen's suggestion that Secretary of State Steve Simon should be imprisoned for his handling of the 2020 elections, despite the lack of any criminal allegations against Simon.
"Minnesotans want their leaders to focus on helping working families, but Scott Jensen is only interested in his far-right political agenda."
Democratic President Joe Biden's struggles with inflation, crime and other issues offer promising conditions for Republican gains across the country in November. But even with national headwinds bolstering their attempts to win statewide for the first time since 2006, Republicans at the Rochester convention hadn't forgotten past failures to break the party's losing streak.
"If the race is a referendum on Tim Walz and Minneapolis burning and people not feeling safe and inflation, the Republicans do really well," Austin City Council Member Jason Baskin said as he watched the action on the convention floor.
"If it's a referendum on the Republican candidate and they allow themselves to get defined by the Democrats, then they lose. Historically where we've struggled is we've had candidates that have allowed themselves to get painted."
Itasca County GOP Chair Diane Howe said Republicans tend to be their own worst enemies and have "snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory."
"This is our opportunity," Howe said. "If the Republicans blow it this time, we have no one to blame but ourselves."
Jensen's supporters emphasized his ability to appeal to the suburbs and parents. Some convention attendees said he inspired more people to get involved in the party; about 55% of the delegates said they were participating for the first time.
However, Jensen's controversial views questioning the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines and other issues have long been attacked by Democrats as a derailing issue for his 2022 ambitions.
"I'm not an expert on coronavirus," Minnesota Republican Party Chair David Hann told reporters after Jensen was endorsed. "And so I think the statements that Dr. Jensen has made are his opinions and he is more than capable of defending them."
It remains to be seen whether former President Donald Trump will endorse Jensen and what that endorsement would mean for the candidate's chances in a state Trump never carried. Trump's false election fraud claims remain a galvanizing topic for some Republicans.
"2020 was stolen, and I think that that's important," convention attendee Angi Baumel said. "I don't think it ever is gonna go away."
Trump's divisiveness in Minnesota could hurt Republicans' chances in state races, said Rob Doar, who helped work on the GOP's platform for the state convention.
"This battle between Trump-style Republicans and more conventional social, fiscal conservative Republicans — neither one of them can win without the other," Doar said. "As long as there is Trump supporters who will demonize and bash anybody who is not a huge fan of Trump, a victory will still be elusive for them."
The November outcome will also hinge on Jensen's ability to pivot and draw in a broader audience while still maintaining support from party activists, said Doar.
Candidates must address certain "purity tests" when courting convention delegates, Jensen said. Now that he has the endorsement, he said, he can broaden his platform and change his emphasis.
"You can start to talk about, what does consumer protection look like? What does corporate responsibility look like?" Jensen said. "What's the Republican perspective on how do we conserve water and protect aquifers, and what's our position on environment?"