ROCHESTER - Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz won his party's endorsement Friday as he nears the end of a first term defined by the COVID-19 pandemic, civil unrest and deepening partisan divisions.
Although the DFL governor addressed delegates from the same Mayo Civic Center stage where he unsuccessfully sought their endorsement four years ago, the circumstances could not have been more different. In 2018, Walz was in a crowded field of DFLers vying for the open governor's seat, Donald Trump's presidency was galvanizing Democrats nationwide and there hadn't been a global pandemic in a century.
Still, Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said in an interview Friday that they're hopeful about what comes next.
"We were reflecting; it's different now," Walz said. "But at the end of the day, those shared values that we talked about four years ago — I feel even stronger about them now."
Walz and Flanagan will likely face the Republican ticket of former state Sen. Scott Jensen and his running mate, former Vikings center Matt Birk, in November. While Walz's campaign has focused on his administration's response to the pandemic, Jensen, a physician who won the GOP endorsement last weekend, has built support by opposing now-expired pandemic restrictions and questioning the usefulness of vaccines.
"From that stage last week, if you compared those speeches side by side, you'll hear one that I think if you closed your eyes would have sounded like 1950, and you'll hear one that'll talk about what the future looks like for our children," Walz said before addressing delegates.
In a statement following the endorsements, Minnesota Republican Party Chair David Hann said, "We welcome the coming campaign and are going to work hard to elect Dr. Scott Jensen and the rest of our Republican ticket to take Minnesota back from the failed policies of the Democrats to make our streets safer and our schools and economy stronger."
Minnesota DFLers have called the possibility of a Jensen governorship "dangerous," zeroing in on his unsupported claims about COVID, support for a full abortion ban and calls for Secretary of State Steve Simon to be jailed for his handling of the state's elections. Simon has not been accused of any crime.
"I really think that it's important that folks understand the distinct choice to be made between the two parties here and their agendas and their priorities and the candidates," said Marissa Luna, executive director of the Democrat-backing political fund Alliance for a Better Minnesota. "When you think about Gov. Walz and Scott Jensen, they couldn't be more different. And what a Scott Jensen governorship would look like is very scary for so many reasons."
The Minnesota DFL laid out that divide in stark terms Friday, including videos about the possibility of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and a speech from Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States.
"Every generation must fight these fights anew because no right is guaranteed," party Chair Ken Martin told delegates, also noting threats to voting rights and same-sex marriage. "This is the most important election of our lifetime."
On the night the draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked, Flanagan said, she put her daughter to bed and said a prayer "that this state and this country wouldn't be less safe for her than it was for her mom, but also for her grandmother."
"That is one of the things, I think, that drives me and drives us to continue to work really hard," Flanagan said. "There is certainly a contrast, and I think Minnesotans will see that."
Walz, who until recent weeks faced a crowded field of potential Republican challengers, leads Jensen in both fundraising and recent polling. And though his approval ratings have declined, Walz has polled higher than President Joe Biden.
The party that controls the White House typically struggles in midterm elections, and Democrats nationally are expected to face headwinds this year. In Minnesota, all 201 legislative seats are on the November ballot, and DFLers and Republicans in the divided Legislature are pushing for control of both chambers.
Former state DFL Chair Mike Erlandson's advice for Walz is to "focus on what he's done and moving the state forward and look forward, and not worry about things you can't control. And you can't control the president's popularity any more than the Republicans can control Donald Trump."
Among the party faithful in Rochester, the mood was hopeful, committed and concerned about the consequences of any election losses this year.
"I think we have a better chance in Minnesota than we do nationally," said Matthew Loewen, 28, of South St. Paul, a first-time delegate who is working on his master's degree in public health. "There's so many threats to democracy right now that I had to do something to get involved."
Lisa Noah, 59, of Eagan, who works for her family's software business, said Walz was a strong governor in challenging times.
"I have confidence in him to do the right things," she said.
As for the notion that it's a Republican year, Noah said, "It's not true until it happens, and that's why we have to work really hard to get out the vote."