Nearly two dozen Minnesota county sheriffs are backing Republican Jim Schultz in his closely watched race to unseat Democratic Attorney General Keith Ellison.

The 22 sheriffs who endorsed Schultz on Tuesday include Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie, Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart and Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry. Fletcher said his endorsement of Schultz marks the first time he's backed an attorney general candidate in his law enforcement career, which has spanned almost 50 years.

Schultz, who has also been endorsed by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said he will announce more law enforcement endorsements in the coming weeks.

"I am so honored that so many in law enforcement throughout our state have stood up to support my campaign," Schultz said during a news conference at the State Capitol Tuesday. "It is representative of how so many sheriffs view this race as being critically important to the future of our state."

Schultz and Ellison are nearly deadlocked in the battle for the state's top legal office, according to a recent Star Tribune/MPR News/KARE 11 Minnesota Poll. The poll found that 46% of respondents favored Ellison, while 45% backed Schultz. Ellison's narrow lead falls within the poll's margin of error.

Schultz, a political newcomer, has zeroed in on rising crime as a campaign issue. He's said he will partner with police to address violent crime and criticized Ellison for supporting the failed ballot amendment to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety.

Ellison has refuted claims that he supported "defunding" the police, saying he supported the Minneapolis ballot measure because he wanted to build a more holistic department that includes police, mental health responders and other emergency personnel.

The Democrat said he has strong working relationships with some city and suburban police chiefs and also helped the St. Paul Police Department write a recruitment message.

Jeanne Stuart, Ellison's campaign manager, said in a statement Tuesday she would "put Keith's record against Jim Schultz's record of no prosecution or results any day." She noted that Ellison has prosecuted more than three dozen cases involving murder, manslaughter, criminal vehicular homicide and sexual assault.

"Jim Schultz wants to be the Chief Legal Officer of the State but has never stepped foot in a courtroom or prosecuted a single crime in his legal career — no matter how he wants to pretend otherwise," Stuart said. "Keith Ellison has used his full authority under the law to prosecute violent crime, and County Attorneys across the state trust him to deliver justice for victims."