The last election is barely over, but Minnesota Republicans have already started to angle for the state's next big political matchup.
Too soon? For a party desperate to regain statewide relevance, and hopeful that pandemic-driven decisions and last spring's stretch of civil unrest left Democratic Gov. Tim Walz vulnerable, 2022 offers a chance for a major reset.
"It's time we get our act together because we have a very beatable governor here who will have a lot of serious issues to account for," said Annette Meeks, a longtime GOP insider and the party's 2010 nominee for lieutenant governor.
Still, with soon-to-be-former President Donald Trump likely to loom over the country's politics as he and his most fervent supporters continue to dispute the last election's outcome, Minnesota Republicans must consider how much they want the party to embody his brand in a state that he twice failed to win and where he failed to bring statewide election victories while he had the White House.
Speculation started ramping up even before last November's election, an expedited timeline that reflects an ongoing tussle over the party's identity.
A personal friend of Trump's, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell has openly mulled a gubernatorial bid. Several members of Congress and the Legislature are testing the waters after spending the past year bashing Walz's measures to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. And an ex-Minnesota Viking is considering a play for chief executive, too.
Lindell told the Star Tribune last week that he is "90 to 95%" likely to run for governor next year, offering Minnesota Republicans the biggest test of Trump's ongoing traction. The honorary chairman of Trump's campaign in Minnesota, Lindell remains among the highest-profile figures still pursuing legal efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election amid evidence-free claims of voter fraud.
Lindell said he has so far poured more than $1 million of his own money into such endeavors, and that he has been working closely with former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn on probing allegations of election fraud.
He said he would make a decision on 2022 "once we know Donald Trump is our president" and added that he doesn't feel pressure to announce anytime soon "because people know who I am."
"I think I would bring common sense and unity," Lindell said. "It's a business, where you run things like a business. I look at problems and solutions and what it's going to manifest into."
It's still nearly a year until the party's nominating process really gets underway, with a straw poll planned for a December 2021 meeting of the party's State Central Committee. But Jennifer Carnahan, chairwoman of the Minnesota Republican Party, predicted that Walz's management of COVID-19 and his response to rioting in the Twin Cities will still be a major focus of the campaign against him.
"We know that in Minnesota to win statewide races, and this goes for both parties … we really have to win over those independent and swing voters," said Carnahan, who is not yet saying if she'll run again this spring for her party leadership post. "That's going to be a key priority no matter who the candidate is to help us find a path to success on a statewide level."
The governorship has eluded Republicans since Tim Pawlenty narrowly won re-election in 2006. Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said Minnesota Republicans have since opted to foment a divide between the Twin Cities area and the rest of Minnesota.
"The Republican Party, both the party itself and also policymakers and key party leaders, have really embraced the idea of catering just to greater Minnesota. There just aren't enough votes in greater Minnesota to deliver a statewide election to you," Martin said, noting that Republicans now wash out not just in the two core cities but large swaths of the suburbs.
One potentially formidable contender is U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, who has won two successive races in a large northeastern Minnesota district that Democrats mostly held for decades. Stauber campaign manager Johnny Eloranta said the congressman "is keeping all options open."
A suburban possibility is Scott Jensen, a Chaska physician who just retired from the state Senate. Banking on a reputation as a political maverick, Jensen said he hopes to finalize a decision within the first four months of 2021.
Jensen earned national prominence in early 2020 by casting doubt on how COVID-19 fatalities were being recorded. In the latest in a long line of online videos, Jensen last week portrayed Walz's pandemic response as an "abusive relationship" with Minnesotans.
Jensen said Republicans need to broaden their appeal to women and communities of color if they are to compete statewide.
"I think the Republican Party is sometimes envisioned as not having the same level of concern as what those specific communities would want and expect," Jensen said.
Other potential candidates include Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, who has privately explored a run but has made no public comments. Matt Birk, a former Minnesota Viking who has been active in Republican politics in recent years, has said he is considering a run.
Kurt Zellers, a former state House speaker, added another former Viking, Chad Greenway, to the list of possibilities, as well as state Sens. Karin Housley and Julie Rosen. None have publicly confirmed interest in the job.
Zellers cautioned that whether as a prominent name in business or a local celebrity, name recognition can only go so far.
"You need to have ideas, you need to have an agenda, you need to be in tune with what people are most concerned about," Zellers said.
Walz will remain a tough foe, Zellers said. His statewide polling stayed strong well into the pandemic and following the unrest in Minneapolis: a September Star Tribune Minnesota Poll found him at 57% approval, though that was down 8 points from the previous poll at the end of May.
Teddy Tschann, Walz's press secretary, said the governor "remains focused on getting Minnesotans through the COVID-19 pandemic. His priority for 2021 is to help get Minnesotans vaccinated so everyone can get back to business as usual."
GOP leaders believe any hopefuls will need to demonstrate their viability by the time this year's State Fair rolls around.
Billy Grant, a GOP operative who helped manage Doug Wardlow's campaign for attorney general in 2018, described last year's general election as a barometer for where the governor's race can be won. He said Democrats' inability to win control over the Legislature proved that Minnesotans wanted a check on the Walz administration.
To topple Walz, Grant said, Republicans will need an unconventional candidate.
"We need to try different things because what we've been doing hasn't worked," he said. "I want to see someone willing to mix it up a little bit."
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755