Michelle Benson has a carefully crafted closing line she hopes sticks in the minds of the Republican faithful who spend their Saturdays listening to candidate speeches at high school auditoriums and community centers.

"I have the work ethic of a farm girl, the steadfastness of a Navy wife, the skills of a CPA, the experience of a senator and the common sense of a mom," the Ham Lake senator is telling party delegates who will decide whether she's the GOP candidate for Minnesota governor this year. It's a resume that stands out from the pack of 10 Republicans vying to run against DFL Gov. Tim Walz.

Benson, 52, is the lone woman in the race. She's a key Senate negotiator with strong conservative credentials who could appeal to voters in critical suburban districts, which political strategists and supporters say could make her a strong opponent to Walz if she secures her party's endorsement.

But with the Republican Party's endorsing convention less than two months away, she is trailing other candidates financially and came in below "undecided" in last month's GOP straw poll. Benson and most of the gubernatorial hopefuls plan to drop out if they do not get the endorsement.

"Just on paper, you would think as a suburban legislator, a mom, a pretty strong leader in the Senate, she would be a pretty formidable challenger. But her campaign just hasn't taken off," DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said. He added that the GOP seemed to have shifted to the right of Benson, who he called very conservative.

With former state Sen. Scott Jensen raising five times what she had by the end of 2021, "it's turned into a money race," Benson said. She squeezes in calls to donors and delegates around legislating and zigzagging to events across Minnesota.

"Now it's just work hard and catch up, and hard work is just what I do," she said.

Benson has laid out a series of "Day One" plans as governor that include pushing for a voter ID law, increasing law enforcement funds, giving parents more say in schools and ending the Social Security tax.

Many of those goals would require legislative buy-in, Benson said. But she said she could act immediately to freeze state hires, propose a budget with lower tax rates, champion law enforcement and name an education commissioner "focused on fundamentals ... not activism."

Benson is the most qualified candidate and could hit the ground running, said Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover.

She first ran for the Senate in 2010, spurred by her anger over the passage of the federal Affordable Care Act. She spent years as the influential lead of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, shaping the second-largest piece of the state's budget after education. Benson said the biggest challenges were responding to COVID and enabling health care innovation while trying to keep care affordable.

Benson has saved taxpayers and insurance payers money while looking out for vulnerable Minnesotans, Scott said, including people with disabilities and in nursing homes.

"She is very smart, really does her homework," said Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, who was Benson's health and human services counterpart in the House. While they differ on many issues, Liebling noted they've agreed on spending to address racial health inequities and to get vaccines and testing to Minnesotans.

"Unlike some of her people in her party, she believes in science," Liebling said. "She was never a denier of the pandemic."

Benson commiserated over COVID with first-time party delegate Kim Sabers during a local unit convention in Lakeville last weekend. She described leading a legislative committee while her 11-year-old daughter did school work alongside her. Sabers said she is getting involved in politics for the first time because of frustration over distance learning.

"There are so many people who ... just wanted to use their good judgment," Benson replied. "That was what was so frustrating."

Sabers said she's not certain who she will support for governor, but she liked talking to Benson. "She's a mom. She lived through it," Sabers said.

Solid conservatism

This isn't Benson's first time to make the case that electoral success in her Senate district — which spans suburban to rural communities in Anoka, Isanti and Sherburne counties just north of the metro area — can translate to statewide votes. She was former state Sen. Dave Thompson's running mate during his failed 2014 bid for governor.

However, a few years ago there was a question whether she would even stick around the State Capitol amid a controversy over her family's finances.

Her husband, Craig, purchased a steel fabrication company in Hugo in 2013, then filed for bankruptcy five years later. She remembers standing at a gas pump with $20, not wanting to put more money on a credit card, and thinking about how eggs were 37 cents when she needed to feed two teenage boys.

"Craig went through the bankruptcy court. We did everything that we were asked to do, and I'm transparent about it," Benson said.

GOP Rep. Tim Miller views the senator as well-positioned to win and has been speaking on her behalf at local conventions. Miller, of Prinsburg, said Benson has stayed true to "solid conservative positions" on abortion and guns and worked with him to combat sex trafficking. He's close to her family and drives a tractor on the farm where she was raised.

Growing up on a corn and soybean farm in the western Minnesota town of Murdock, Benson was the oldest of five children in a family that was deeply involved in their Catholic parish. She headed to St. Catherine University in St. Paul for a chemistry degree, thinking she would go to medical school.

Her plans changed after she got married and her husband spent five years with the Navy submarine service. When they returned to Minnesota, she became a certified public accountant and got a master's degree in business administration. She audited hospitals and businesses at Deloitte, which she said helped prepare her to tackle health and human services at the Capitol.

GOP operative Annette Meeks said she became aware of those credentials for the first time last weekend. "That needs to get out," Meeks said, as well as Benson's farm upbringing.

Meeks, who supports Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said both Gazelka and Benson are "very modest Minnesotans. They don't go out tooting their own horns, and they should."

With two months left before the party convention, the candidates need strong fundraising, an exciting running mate and specific plans, Meeks said.

Benson said there's "no place in my brain" that tracks things to brag about. She acknowledged it's a political hindrance.

"My parents showed up early for everything at church or school. I was taught you get there, you set up the chairs, you wipe the tables, you make sure things get done," she said. "You don't have to tell people what you did, just do the damn work."