ST. PAUL — Minnesota’s former Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has finally launched his long-expected campaign for governor, making for a crowded Republican pool of candidates as 2022 draws near.

The East Gull Lake lawmaker officially launched his campaign at a Wednesday, Sept. 8, news conference in Minnesota’s state Capitol in St. Paul, zeroing in on incumbent Democratic Gov. Tim Walz for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.

“We need to look seriously at the crossroads that we’re at right now,” Gazelka said Wednesday, surrounded by campaign supporters. “This is a very important moment for Minnesota. And to start with where we want to go in the future, we have to look back at where we were the last year and a half.”

Former-Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, at a Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021 news conference in the state Capitol announces his campaign to be Minnesota's next governor. Sarah Mearhoff / Forum News Service
Former-Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, at a Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021 news conference in the state Capitol announces his campaign to be Minnesota's next governor. Sarah Mearhoff / Forum News Service

Holding a political campaign announcement in the state Capitol, as Gazelka did, is not forbidden for Minnesota lawmakers as it is in other states.

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Gazelka’s gubernatorial run was all but confirmed last week when he announced his resignation from his post as Senate majority leader — a position he would be unable to hold while running for higher office. Gazelka joins two of his current and former Senate colleagues, Michelle Benson and Scott Jensen, as well as activist Bob Carney, businessman Mike Marti, Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy and physician Neil Shah in the Republican primary.

On Wednesday, he rattled off his grievances with Walz, saying the governor's executive orders to close nonessential businesses at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic were “irresponsible,” that his school closures during the pandemic “failed an entire generation of children” and that his handling of long-term care and nursing homes have “endanger(ed) the lives of the vulnerable.”

Asked about Gazelka’s statements at an unrelated event in Rochester on Wednesday, Walz welcomed a chance to debate his handling of the pandemic on the campaign trail, saying, “I think if that's a referendum on that, I'm quite comfortable talking about how we handled this versus sitting on the sidelines and denying science.”

Walz hasn't officially announced his campaign for a second term, but is expected to and has continued fundraising. In a poll of 1,945 Minnesota voters published Wednesday by MinnPost, 44% of those surveyed said they viewed Walz somewhat or very favorably, versus 48% unfavorably.

Former-Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, at a Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021 news conference in the state Capitol announces his campaign to be Minnesota's next governor. Sarah Mearhoff / Forum News Service
Former-Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, at a Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021 news conference in the state Capitol announces his campaign to be Minnesota's next governor. Sarah Mearhoff / Forum News Service

Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chair Ken Martin in a Wednesday statement accused Gazelka of “repeatedly spread(ing) dangerous misinformation throughout the pandemic and mis(leading) the public about the state of COVID-19 at virtually every turn.”

“At a time when Minnesotans need their elected leaders to look out for them, Senator Paul Gazelka has put his political agenda over the health and safety of Minnesotans,” Martin said. “The last thing Minnesotans need is someone who prioritizes their own political interests over the working people of this state.”

Throughout the pandemic, Gazelka openly sparred with Walz over his use of executive powers, saying the governor overstepped his bounds and should have worked more collaboratively with the Legislature to make statewide decisions.

But Gazelka’s relationship with St. Paul Democrats isn’t always so confrontational. As Senate majority leader, Gazelka garnered a reputation as a dealmaker and compromiser with the governor’s office and Democratic House leadership.

When courting the Republican party’s right-most base during the primary cycle, that reputation could hinder Gazelka’s competition among some more conservative candidates vying for the party’s endorsement.

Gazelka seemed unperturbed when questioned by reporters on Wednesday, though, saying that he expects delegates will also value someone who is “able to reach the middle” like he’s had to as a leader in the nation’s only divided Legislature. And he hinted that there are some legislative Democrats and Independents who are willing to get behind his campaign.

“In the end, I do believe that people will see that I can govern and also that we can hold the line on the things that are important to Republicans,” he said.

Of those key issues important to the Republican base, Gazelka pointed specifically to being pro-gun ownership rights and anti-abortion access. Asked several times for his take on Texas’ controversial six-week abortion “bounty” law, which allows strangers to sue those who “aid and abet” a patient seeking an abortion for $10,000, Gazelka didn’t offer a commitment to sign such a bill. He said he’d have to see the language and consult with legal counsel and anti-abortion groups first, but he said he is "pro-life" and “we’ll follow down that path.”

Former-Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, at a Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021 news conference in the state Capitol announces his campaign to be Minnesota's next governor. Sarah Mearhoff / Forum News Service
Former-Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, at a Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021 news conference in the state Capitol announces his campaign to be Minnesota's next governor. Sarah Mearhoff / Forum News Service

Gazelka did commit, however to respecting the Minnesota Republican delegates’ endorsement decision, and said he wouldn’t pursue a primary challenge if they endorse another candidate. The Minnesota Republican Party is in a precarious position right now, having just ousted former party chair Jennifer Carnahan following a string of workplace harassment allegations.

Gazelka brushed off any concerns over launching his campaign during a tumultuous time for the party: “I was at the state fair in the state GOP booth and I heard virtually no one talking about that.”

“Who they talk about is Gov. Walz and who’s going to beat him and I’m going to be that one,” he said.

Republican slate

These candidates, so far, have announced their intention to seek the Republican nomination for governor in 2022:

  • Former Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
  • Former State Sen. Michelle Benson
  • Former State Sen. Scott Jensen
  • Activist Bob Carney
  • Businessman Mike Marti
  • Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy
  • Physician Neil Shah