Kendall Qualls' run for governor is a campaign of narratives between the life story he tells as part of his pitch to lead the GOP's ticket this fall and the progressive agendas he vigorously opposes.
Mounting his first bid for statewide office — two years after a failed run against DFL U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips — Qualls is once again running as an outsider in a consequential election year. He is betting on that status being an asset. And for what he lacks in electoral experience, Qualls has quickly attracted a deep bench of established GOP party hands and nationally known personalities to help run his quest to challenge DFL Gov. Tim Walz this fall.
"I'm launching from a different platform," he said, comparing this year to his first run for office in 2020. "A much more significant amount of people know me and trust my background."
The ex-health care executive and U.S. Army veteran is vying to become the first Black governor in Minnesota's history. He is quick to point to his upbringing in Harlem and a trailer park in rural Oklahoma as evidence both of the potential he believes America still offers and as a counterpoint in his ongoing argument against the existence of systemic racism.
Qualls launched his campaign in January in an exclusive live interview on "Fox & Friends." Since then, much of his campaign's messaging has mirrored conservative grievances about rising crime, economic woes and social issues often seen on the network's morning talk shows.
His campaign's approach is nearly identical to the "Virginia model" that Republicans nationwide are deploying as they attempt to win back control of governorships and statehouses. Republican Glenn Youngkin rode a message focused on public safety, the economy and parental control in classrooms to win his race for governor in that state last year.
Minnesota DFL Party Chair Ken Martin is skeptical that Qualls can win the nomination or pose a threat to Walz, arguing that his support for slashing taxes on the wealthy, opposition to abortion rights and denial of systemic racism, among other issues, is too "extreme."
"The old-guard Republican establishment behind him who were looking for an alternative to Scott Jensen or Paul Gazelka are probably scratching their heads now recognizing that Kendall Qualls is running on the same extreme agenda, if not more extreme," Martin said.
While Qualls is jockeying to stand out in the crowded GOP field for his focus on criminal justice, he is also making social issues a constant part of his campaign pitch.
Qualls lives with his wife, Sheila, in Medina. The couple, who have five children, founded TakeCharge MN at the end of 2020. The organization promotes two-parent families and opposes critical race theory, an academic framework that is not taught in Minnesota public schools.
"A lot of Minnesotans and a lot of Americans are getting fatigued by the wokeness, the left, the bullying and the accusations of racism," said Qualls. "Let's make a distinction: We have racist people in this country who do bad stuff, I fully acknowledge that … but the country is not systemically racist."
Qualls' campaign attracted Michele Tafoya, the longtime Sunday Night Football sideline reporter who became his campaign co-chair the morning after she made this year's Super Bowl her final night on the job.
"Kendall is not part of the establishment and that is one of things I love so much about him," Tafoya said in an interview. "He wants to go in and make changes. That happens when you have outsiders, that happens when you have people who think outside the box."
Tafoya's national stature fueled speculation first that she would run for governor herself and, more recently, that she would be Qualls' running mate. But she told the Star Tribune that, like her decision not to run for governor, the timing is not right for her to be on any ticket. She described the potential for a lieutenant governor candidacy in 2022 as "off the table."
Tafoya makes a point to describe Qualls' ability to work with those he may not agree with on everything. She said she and Qualls disagree on abortion rights, with her generally supportive in most cases and him firmly against abortion.
"My personal beliefs are not extended on someone else — there's no expectation that you replicate mine," Qualls said. "What is significant about that is that they know there is a trusted entity behind the name and what I stand for because it has been a lifelong journey that's been pretty consistent."
Qualls has also netted the support of former Minnesota Republican Party Chair Ron Eibensteiner and Kevin Poindexter, a former executive director of the state party who now serves as Qualls' campaign manager.
"I just think Kendall is very uniquely positioned and qualified to be our party's champion," Poindexter said. "His life story is a living case study of the promise that America is alive and well."
Poindexter said Qualls' campaign will abide by the party's endorsement after the state GOP convention next month.
Qualls believes he can attract "JFK and Bill Clinton Democrats," the type of Democrats he said his parents were. People, he said, who "are just regular Americans who want to have a good life."
"People are nostalgic for who we used to be," Qualls said. "[Race] wasn't an issue until recently. What we're hearing today about race is a recent phenomenon."