Concerns about election integrity and crime were at the forefront as Minnesota Republicans gathered Friday for their state convention, where they endorsed political newcomer Jim Schultz for the attorney general race and Kim Crockett to be secretary of state.
The two statewide posts — one the state's top lawyer, the other with oversight of state elections — have been locked down by Democrats for years.
Republicans also endorsed attorney Ryan Wilson for state auditor, as thousands of delegates gathered in Rochester to try to coalesce around candidates for key statewide offices ahead of the August primary.
Saturday will bring the biggest task: choosing a candidate for governor from a crowded field.
"The fight against Keith Ellison starts tomorrow," said Schultz, as he pivoted toward a likely November matchup with the incumbent attorney general, who is seeking a second term.
Schultz called Ellison "radical" and said the rise in violent crime in recent years "is an outrage and a disgrace, and we will hold Keith Ellison accountable for it."
Democrats quickly took aim at Schultz, with DFL Party Chair Ken Martin calling him a "hedge-fund lawyer with no experience in a Minnesota courtroom."
"Now more than ever, Minnesotans need an experienced attorney general who will protect their rights and pocketbooks," Martin said in a statement. "And that is not Jim Schultz."
Candidates who win endorsements can draw on the party's resources headed into the primary and toward the general election. Republicans hope to oust a slate of Democratic incumbents, including Ellison, Secretary of State Steve Simon, Auditor Julie Blaha and Gov. Tim Walz.
Multiple candidates for attorney general decried the rise in violent crime in the Twin Cities and Walz's now-rescinded COVID-19 restrictions. Schultz, a Harvard Law School graduate and business lawyer, won his endorsement after making the case that he had put together the best team and built the grassroots support needed to win statewide.
Americans' rights have been "shredded and set ablaze" in recent years, he said.
"We let the media beat up on us; we let the Democrats beat up on us," Schultz said. "This campaign won't be about defense. It's going to be offense, offense, offense."
Schultz narrowly beat Doug Wardlow, a former one-term state legislator who won the party's endorsement for the post in 2018 but lost to Ellison.
"The political winds have shifted;, they are at our backs," Wardlow said Friday.
After losing to Ellison, Wardlow worked for MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell as the company's general counsel. He also is helping manage Lindell's defense against defamation lawsuits filed by voting machine companies that Lindell claimed conspired to steal the 2020 election. Lindell made an appearance at the convention to support Wardlow.
"I'm here for Doug right now," Lindell said as he walked around the Mayo Civic Center. He aired his frequently repeated and long-discredited claims that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election and that electronic voting machines should be taken out of use.
Some delegates said Tad Jude, who has been a district judge, Hennepin County commissioner and state legislator, was the most experienced choice for the attorney general endorsement. But Jude dropped out of the fight after a couple rounds of balloting and endorsed Schultz. Lynne Torgerson, a Minneapolis attorney who has emphasized her support for Trump, also sought the endorsement.
Schultz will run in the August primary against Republican Dennis Smith, a former state legislator. Smith bypassed the endorsement process after calling it "a game for insiders."
In the race for secretary of state, Crockett bested Kelly Jahner-Byrne in a two-person fight for the endorsement.
"We need to return to the civic traditions that unite us, like voting in person," Crockett said. "We must root out years of hyper-partisan election processes."
Crockett works as a legal policy adviser to the Minnesota Voters Alliance, which has filed multiple lawsuits against Simon over the state's election administration. She was suspended from a think tank in 2019 for comments made about Somali Americans for a New York Times article. Her comments, which included the remarks "these aren't people coming from Norway," were widely seen as Islamophobic.
"Kim Crockett is an election conspiracy theorist who has pledged to restrict early voting, roll back vote-by-mail and make it harder for older Minnesotans and folks in greater Minnesota to cast their ballots," Martin, the DFL chair, said after she was endorsed.
Jahner-Byrne, an entrepreneur and philanthropist from Woodbury, was seeking the Republican nomination after an unsuccessful run for the Minnesota House in 2020. She had managed a campaign for former Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, who is now retiring as a state senator and the last Republican to be elected secretary of state.
"We need the purest form of election integrity; we need voter ID," Jahner-Byrne told the convention crowd. Her campaign announcement last year included allegations of a "lack of management, oversight and obvious insecurities" in Simon's office.
Simon, citing state and federal assessments, has called the 2020 election one of the most secure ever. He often points to Minnesota's top-ranked voter turnout rate as a clear signal of high faith in the state's election system.
The candidate comments and Friday's convention machinations highlighted enduring suspicions among Republicans over election security and voter confidence in the state and nationwide since the 2020 vote. Before any endorsements were made, convention delegates battled over their own voting process. Delegates sparred over whether to use electronic voting or paper ballots to make their endorsement decisions.
"If we are who we say we are, then we can trust the process," said convention attendee Don Raleigh III, who was leaning toward electronic ballots. "I don't see the call for paper ballots to be needed. It will take a long, long time."
Some Republicans advocated for continuing with the electronic method, concerned that they would run out of time to make a pick in the governor's race, while opponents of the electronic system dipped into conspiracy talk. The attempt to switch to paper ballots failed.
While the other endorsement battles were contested, Wilson was the lone candidate seeking the GOP endorsement for auditor to take on Blaha in November. Wilson, a Maple Grove attorney, is the former CEO and co-founder of a company that focused on medical device clinical trials.
"If we can come together, if we can find the candidates willing to fight for Minnesota, our way of life, then we will win," Wilson said.
Staff writer Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report.