Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz's approval rating has risen as the first-term governor navigates the coronavirus crisis, with 2 in 3 registered voters supporting his performance on the job, a Star Tribune/MPR News/KARE 11 Minnesota Poll found.

The 65% approval rating is an increase from a Minnesota Poll conducted in February, weeks before the pandemic upended daily life and politics, leading to a series of executive actions temporarily closing businesses and limiting people's movements. Before the crisis, 56% of registered voters approved of the DFL governor's work.

But the share of Minnesota voters who disapprove of Walz's job performance also has grown as the political debate intensifies about the state's stay-at-home orders. In February, 25% of Minnesotans said they disapproved of his job as governor, compared to 30% in May, even as a majority of registered voters also voiced support for the restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the virus.

Plymouth resident Cheri Rolnick has backed Walz since his 2018 run for office. She said his "top notch" response to the crisis has reinforced her support.

"I feel he was very quick to act and pay attention to the scientists," she said. "I'm a retired epidemiologist, so science means a lot to me. Hunches mean very little."

The telephone poll of 800 registered voters was conducted May 18-20, after the end of the statewide stay-at-home order and just as the governor was rolling out new rules allowing for some reopening of restaurants and salons. The poll, by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, has a margin of sampling error of 3.5%.

Walz's latest decision allows restaurants and bars to open patios with up to 50 patrons as of June 1 and caps in-person gatherings to 10 people. Restaurateurs, some church leaders, Republicans in the Legislature and the state nurses union all have criticized various elements of the plan.

Under pressure from Catholic Church leaders and others, Walz modified his orders Saturday to allow places of worship to open at 25% occupancy starting Wednesday so long as they follow public health guidelines.

But while nearly a third of Minnesotans said his restrictions have gone too far, two-thirds said they are "about right" or haven't gone far enough.

Gil Gehle, a commercial airlines pilot from Wayzata, shares concerns about the governor's approach. Gehle, who leans conservative but sometimes votes for Democrats, said he didn't think it was fair that large retailers such as Costco and Walmart "got different rules than the smaller people" when closures were first ordered. And he worries about the economic cost of the measures.

"My overall opinion on this is: He had to do what he had to do and listen to the medical experts, but I think he's done a lot more harm overall economically and there's a lot of lives that are ruined," he said.

Even with those criticisms, Gehle, who voted for Republican gubernatorial nominee Jeff Johnson in 2018, said he still approves of the DFL governor's overall job performance.

"I think his daily visibility on the news, giving us updates, has been helpful, calming everyone down," he said. "He did a good job of conveying what he was doing and why he was doing it."

Walz's response to the virus, easily the biggest test of his current term, has faced the loudest criticism from GOP legislators and activists who have questioned his ongoing use of emergency powers, which are widely expected to be renewed on June 12. Several lawsuits have been filed challenging his actions, including one brought by Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jason Lewis. Elected state Democrats have largely supported Walz's actions.

The poll results reflect that deep partisan divide: 61% of Republicans disapprove of Walz's performance, up from 51% in February, while 33% approve. Among Democrats, the governor's approval ratings jump to 93%. Independent voters also approve of Walz's work by a wide margin: 65% to 28%.

Although rural GOP lawmakers have been Walz's loudest critics in the Legislature, the latest Minnesota Poll shows the governor winning support from a majority of voters across all regions. More than 60% of voters in northern Minnesota and the metro suburbs voiced approval, while nearly 3 of 4 in Hennepin and Ramsey County held favorable views. In southern Minnesota, a region that includes Walz's former U.S. House district, 55% approve and 39% disapprove of his job performance.

Governors across the nation have attracted strong approval ratings in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with state elected leaders on both sides of the political aisle largely outpolling President Donald Trump. The latest Minnesota Poll showed a similar dynamic, with Walz holding a 20-point favorability edge over the Republican president.

Walz, elected in 2018, is not on the ballot again until 2022. But his strong favorability rating could help him navigate the pandemic. University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson said the results suggest voters are generally supporting Walz's response and are more familiar with the governor than they were in February. While his approval numbers will likely dip as criticism from Republican leaders and others intensifies, Pearson said the high ratings could boost the governor both from a political and a public health standpoint.

"In general, these numbers are helpful for him as he continues to pursue a moderate, evidence-based strategy in consultation with scientists and health experts and others," Pearson said.

Torey Van Oot • 651-925-5049