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Jim Schultz's high school classmates in Annandale were convinced that the well-liked cross-country runner and devout Catholic would one day become a priest. After two years in seminary, he was well on that path.

But a detour to Harvard Law School and a career pivot into the legal sector back home in Minnesota instead put Schultz on a surprising journey that now has him as the state Republican Party's preferred candidate to challenge DFL Attorney General Keith Ellison in an election that Republicans are talking about with grave seriousness.

"I feel like we're losing the state I grew up in," said the 36-year-old native of the small central Minnesota town of South Haven in an interview last week, days after securing the Minnesota GOP's endorsement at its convention in Rochester.

The political newcomer now has his sights set on toppling the incumbent Ellison to reverse a long statewide losing streak for Republicans. But he first must counter a primary push from the party's 2018 candidate Doug Wardlow, who announced last week that he would challenge Schultz in the August primary despite previously vowing to abide by the endorsement.

"It's become something of a distraction in terms of beating Keith Ellison," said Schultz, who called Wardlow's decision deeply disappointing. "But, fundamentally, Keith Ellison is a deeply unpopular attorney general, we will beat him irrespective of whether or not you have a primary."

Schultz, who lives in Minnetonka with his wife, Molly, and three young children, quickly drew the support of veteran GOP leaders and operatives to help run his campaign when he decided to run last year. Rob Eibensteiner, the former state party chair, is managing Schultz's campaign. Ex-U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden is his finance chair.

Jeanette Purcell, a key GOP fundraiser who attended high school with Schultz, also will help the campaign raise money.

Schultz decided to run after spending a decade as an attorney in Minnesota — most recently at Värde Partners Inc., a Twin Cities hedge fund. He argues that the attorney general's office is too political under Ellison and that not enough is being done to confront the scourge of violent crime in the state. To make that point, he likes to share the story of his sister calling him from her north Minneapolis home in tears after gunfire punctured her walls one morning.

"I do view what's happening in our cities as well as other parts of the state with the rise in crime as an absolute and utter disgrace," Schultz said. "What we're seeing right now is a man-caused disaster."

Schultz partly cites the rise in crime as motivation to run for office decades earlier than he expected. He said he previously envisioned public service as a possibility in his 50s or 60s well after he established himself in private practice.

Now, Schultz is hammering Ellison for his support of the failed Minneapolis ballot measure that would have removed the Minneapolis Police Department from the city charter and remade it as a Department of Public Safety. Republicans have linked the charter — and Democratic officials such as Ellison — with the "defund police" movement that picked up steam after George Floyd's 2020 murder.

After the endorsement, the campaign for Ellison described Schultz as emerging from a "pack of right-wing extremists."

And after winning the DFL endorsement Saturday, Ellison asked delegates, "Do we want leaders who are going to protect us, or are going to attack us?

"We need a party that's going to take us forward, not one that's going to take us backward," he said.

DFL Party Chair Ken Martin bashed Schultz as a "hedge-fund lawyer with no experience in a Minnesota courtroom, and the last thing we want is someone like that taking a sledgehammer to the Attorney General's Office."

Purcell called Ellison the "most beatable statewide candidate on the ticket right now" — particularly on the leading issue of "law and order." She suggested that Schultz's mild-mannered campaign style could win over a broad swath of voters around the state.

"Jim is well put together. I don't have to worry about Jim saying something off the cuff or not thought through," Purcell said. "He is very methodical about it and will not run with a crowd that spews conspiracy theories. He's straight-laced and the donor community appreciates that."

Tom Kelly, a partner at Dorsey & Whitney who worked with Schultz when he was at the firm, described the young candidate as "basically doing a better job running a campaign that I tried to run 20 years ago" when he unsuccessfully challenged DFL Attorney General Mike Hatch.

"The state would benefit from somebody who's running that office professionally rather than as a launching pad to the next office," Kelly said.

Staff writer Emma Nelson contributed to this report.