Former Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka is jumping into the Republican field for Minnesota governor, hoping to parlay his prominence as the lone conservative blockade to Democrats in state government to become the party's nominee next fall.

Gazelka, a four-term senator from East Gull Lake, made his long-anticipated run for governor official on Wednesday surrounded by supporters at the Capitol, where he's served as the Republican caucus leader for the past five years.

During his time in leadership, Gazelka brokered budget deals with Democratic governors and DFL leaders in control of the state House, but he's also been a vocal opponent of tax increases proposed by Democrats. He trained his fire on DFL Gov. Tim Walz and closures of businesses and classrooms during the pandemic and criticized the first-term governor for his response to civil unrest last summer that left businesses destroyed.

"Tim Walz says he wants one Minnesota, but I've never seen Minnesotans more divided, angry and afraid than they are today," Gazelka said. "Is that the road we want to go down?"

Walz, a former teacher and DFL congressman from Mankato, is expected to run for a second term in 2022, but he's made no formal announcement yet.

Gazelka recently stepped down as majority leader and is one of more than a half dozen Republican candidates in the race. His Republican colleague Sen. Michelle Benson and former Sen. Scott Jensen, as well as Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy, businessman Mike Marti and Dr. Neil Shah have also announced a run for governor.

Republicans have been shut out of the governor's office since 2011 and have failed to win any statewide office since former Gov. Tim Pawlenty was re-elected in 2006. Gazelka said he's trying to break that streak by building support among delegates and lawmakers in formerly blue turf on the Iron Range, including former DFL Sen. Tom Bakk, now an independent from Cook. He said some Democrats in Minneapolis are also turned off by a ballot initiative that would replace the city's police department with a new public safety agency.

But Democrats were quick to attack Gazelka as the chief obstacle to a number of top progressive priorities over the years, including a push for more police-reform measures last session and new gun restriction laws. In a statement, DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin criticized Gazelka for holding a postelection event last year where the family of the late Sen. Jerry Relph believe he contracted COVID-19 and later died.

"At a time when Minnesotans need their elected leaders to look out for them, Sen. Paul Gazelka has put his political agenda over the health and safety of Minnesotans," Martin said in a statement. "Gazelka repeatedly spread dangerous misinformation throughout the pandemic and misled the public about the state of COVID-19 at virtually every turn."

Candidates like Jensen have gained momentum in the race over their skepticism of the effectiveness of the vaccine and concerns about vaccinating children. Gazelka said he takes the dangers of COVID-19 seriously, especially for the elderly, and thinks people should be vaccinated.

"I just don't think you should mandate the vaccination on anyone," he said.

Gazelka has served in the Minnesota Senate since 2011, representing parts of Cass, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties in the north central part of the state. Before coming to the Senate, he served one term in the state House.

An insurance salesman who is largely driven by his Christian faith, Gazelka led the push for a failed constitutional amendment in 2012 to ban same-sex marriage. He rose to leadership after Republicans took control of the Senate in 2016, the same year Donald Trump was elected president.

He highlighted his faith and touted his record opposing abortion in announcing his run for governor. Gazelka signaled support for a Texas-style abortion ban but would not pledge to sign a similar law if it landed on his desk as governor.

"Every bill I have to see. I don't make commitments that directly, other than to say I'm pro-life," he said. "My whole record shows that I'm pro-life, so it would follow down that path."

The Republican Party of Minnesota is in turmoil after former chair Jennifer Carnahan suddenly resigned amid a ballooning scandal that she created a hostile work environment. Gazelka, who was not among a group of conservatives who called for her to resign, said he will abide by the party's endorsement and is not worried about its ability to rally behind the nominee.

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042

Twitter: @bbierschbach