Race for governor
ELECTION 2022 Race for governor

Scott Jensen runs on ‘core convictions’ in turbulent bid for Minnesota governor

GOP candidate for governor Scott Jensen campaigned at what was billed as the Hibbing Freedom Rally Saturday, Sept. 10. Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune.

The pandemic spurred the Chaska physician to run. Now he hopes a divided state will elect a Republican governor for the first time in more than a decade.

HERMANTOWN, Minn. — Scott Jensen's speech was reaching its crescendo. Time for the parting message he hoped would turn roughly 200 people packed in a hot pole barn into emissaries for his campaign.

"We can never let our core convictions go," the Chaska doctor told the crowd, returning to his criticism of COVID-19 mandates that won over GOP activists and made him the party's pick for the state's highest office.

"That's why people are so horrendously shocked that they have been fired if they wouldn't violate their core conviction of deciding that they don't want that vaccine. That's the problem," said Jensen. "It isn't that the vaccine is this or that. It's that we're Americans. We have core convictions. We get to choose."

Jensen's outspoken distrust of pandemic death counts and opposition to COVID restrictions made him a Fox News regular, prompted him to write a book and raised his political ambitions. Now Jensen is bringing his message to the mainstream as he tries to thread together a broad enough coalition to knock off a DFL incumbent.

Scott Jensen

Age: 67

Education: B.A. physiology and doctor of medicine, University of Minnesota

Family: Wife, Mary, three children, seven grandchildren

What he's reading: "Origin" by Dan Brown

Hobbies: Golf, flying, writing and reading

"This is going to be a David and Goliath win for him, if it's a win at all," said Matt Heikes of Hastings, who started volunteering for Jensen's campaign after he saw the candidate on YouTube and wondered, "Why is this man saying what I feel is right, when he could be golfing in Florida?"

Jensen, who lags Democratic Gov. Tim Walz in cash and recent polls, is pinning his hopes to become the first Republican to win statewide office in 16 years on a simple plan.

"Send a message out that touches people and has an authenticity and a transparency about it," he said, sitting at the cluttered clinic desk where he regularly records Facebook, YouTube and TikTok videos.

In dozens of videos, Jensen looks into the camera and explains. He talks about "fear-fueled policy making" during COVID, the government's role in abortion decisions and his stances on gun control.

As a rookie legislator, he frequently took on difficult issues at the Capitol, at times confounding party leaders and political allies. He laments that past attempts to work across the aisle — including on marijuana, health care and gun reform — can become political liabilities.

If elected, Jensen said, he doesn't have concrete plans for all his ideas, such as eliminating Minnesota's personal income tax. But he wants to bring people together, he said. And he wants to talk.

Medicine and faith

Bespectacled with a slight build, the 67-year-old grandfather of seven moves through both his Watertown clinic and campaign crowds with a fast-paced, close-and-intense energy.

Jensen grabs outstretched hands with both of his. He pulls in supporters for selfies. In his wake, he leaves a doctor's scrawl on footballs and copies of his latest book, "We've Been Played: Exposing the Triad of Tyranny" (the triad being "Big Pharma, Big Tech, and Big Government").

At the Hermantown rally, he warmly greeted his former basketball teammate from Sleepy Eye High School. "I believe he's honest. He cares for the people. He can work with anyone," Lynn Paulsen said of his old classmate.

Valedictorian of his small class, Jensen was involved in a lot from an early age: golf, basketball, theater.

Now his curriculum vitae lists roughly two dozen community service roles. He and his wife, Mary, have raised three kids — two doctors and an attorney. He went through a phase of learning one new thing a year: downhill skiing, flying a plane, creative writing.

But before all of that, he was a young man struggling to find his path.

He went to the University of Minnesota planning to become a dentist. Turns out, he didn't like teeth. Unsure what to do next and grieving the cancer death of his mother — his best friend, he said — Jensen went to Luther Seminary.

After a year, he returned to the U to become a doctor. This time the plan stuck. So did his faith. His Watertown clinic brims with Bible verses. They appear on magnets and wall hangings.

Medicine became a career that shaped much of who Jensen is, and one he doesn't plan to give up.

"If I win, I'll have to cut back a little bit," he told patient Bud George during a September appointment in a tractor-themed exam room. "But I'm still the underdog."

Every room at his practice has an elaborate motif: golf, flowers, M*A*S*H, a French bistro. Jensen estimated he would hold clinic office hours Tuesday and Thursday mornings if elected.

"The last damn thing I'm going to do," he told George, "is spend my entire life with political types."

'Of his own mind'

State politics was part of Jensen's life from a young age. His father, Carl, spent more than two decades in the Legislature. Growing up, he wasn't interested in that world.

But a Waconia school referendum whet his appetite. His work to pass funding for a new building led to a decade on the school board. Then, in 2016, one term in the state Senate.

Jensen was a confident and unpredictable legislator, former colleagues say.

"He very much was of his own mind," said Republican Sen. Michelle Benson, who chaired the Health and Human Services Committee. She advised GOP members on votes, sometimes giving in to Democrats' requests in order to reach a deal. But she said Jensen wasn't a reliable vote.

"He would always be the one to say, 'Well, I'm going to ask some questions,'" she said. "There was a little of that learning curve."

He was also willing to break ranks. In the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting, he joined Democrats sponsoring gun control bills. Now, Jensen said, his top priorities as governor include legislation expanding the right to use deadly force in self-defense.

"It evolves and then it devolves and then it revolves," Rob Doar, with the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, said of Jensen's stances. "Our confidence is that our members, our supporters, have been able to help persuade him."

Jensen also co-sponsored a marijuana legalization proposal at the Capitol. He said he was concerned with criminalization and wanted to start a conversation. Now, he wants to leave the question to voters.

"When we first started in the Legislature, we really tried to work together as physicians in a nonpartisan way," said DFL Sen. Matt Klein, a doctor at Mayo Clinic. "He was a bit eccentric ... He talks a lot," Klein said, "But had, at base, a common sense and a practical medical outlook, and a good heart."

Then the pandemic hit.

Jensen clashed with Klein and others in the Senate over Walz's emergency decisionmaking powers and closures of businesses and schools.

"He's caused injury and death among my patients," Klein said. "And I don't see a path for myself to forget about that."

Campaigning on COVID

Jensen's campaign launch in March 2021 focused on two things: his background — as a doctor, family man and involved community member — and his opposition to Walz's COVID-19 measures.

One of the first Republicans to enter the race, his message resonated. At GOP events, people said government overreach during the pandemic prompted them to get involved in politics for the first time. It was often Jensen they showed up to back.

By the Republican state convention in May 2022, Jensen had enlisted former Minnesota Viking Matt Birk as his running mate. They outspent opponents and narrowly won the endorsement. But facing a DFL incumbent is a different matter. Jensen has about $860,000 in the bank compared with Walz's $3.2 million, new campaign finance reports show. A recent Star Tribune/MPR News/KARE 11 Minnesota Poll showed Walz leading Jensen by 7 points, with 10% of voters undecided.

"I wouldn't trade our position for theirs in a million years," DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said. "Jensen certainly comes off as a nice, reasonable guy. But if you start to scratch below the surface you see he carries some really extreme positions."

Jensen has stood behind his COVID comments that he said have spurred five state medical board investigations. He claimed doctors were directed to overcount COVID deaths and that there were financial incentives to inflating case numbers. He also called for "civil disobedience" on mask and vaccine requirements.

On a sunny September afternoon in Hibbing, nearly 100 people gathered at a park to see Jensen. One by one, they approached a microphone to explain why they were there.

"I'm sick of bullies ... taking away our Second Amendment rights, telling us when we can open our business, when we cannot, what medicine we must take," one man said.

At events, Jensen sends listeners home with a job: tell people about his campaign. And he shares his vision.

'Let Minnesota decide'

In Jensen's Minnesota, there would be school choice, with state dollars flowing to private schools. He would rewrite the law on emergency powers and require photo IDs to vote. And, over eight years, he'd eliminate the state income tax.

That tax generates about $15 billion a year for state government, about half of the state's annual general fund revenue. After Jensen spoke in Hibbing, Markus Hoche, a state IT specialist, asked him something Hoche's colleagues worry about: Would they have a job?

"You're going to get a raise. You're going to have a job," Jensen said.

Minnesota can do both by using the state's surplus, freezing state hiring, cutting "waste, fraud and abuse" in government and creating a "sizzling" economy, Jensen said. And he said he would look into adding sales tax for some food or clothing.

Jensen's tax proposal "would do real damage to Minnesotans' quality of life," said Nan Madden, director of the nonpartisan Minnesota Budget Project. She added, "He hasn't done the work to identify and be honest with people about where he'd cut."

Hoche also pressed the candidate on his abortion stance. Jensen replied that he wants to "let Minnesota decide" on abortion and marijuana legalization.

Those issues should be handled through the constitutional amendment process, which leaves the decision to legislators and voters, he said. Jensen's abortion comments have shifted, and he recently said his past support for a ban was "taken out of context" and he was referring to a ban after 22-24 weeks.

On other controversies, Jensen has remained firm amid sharp criticism. He tripled down on comparing pandemic restrictions to Nazi Germany and repeatedly declined to release his tax returns.

Jensen's wife, Mary, said both at the State Capitol and on the campaign trail, Jensen is unafraid to take a stand that may dent his chance of winning.

"Scott believes that you say what is right, what's in your heart, and if people don't like it and you're going to take flak for it, well, then you take flak for it," she said. "The world is in a tough place right now, and we need to have dialogue."

A profile of DFL Gov. Tim Walz was published Oct. 9.