Tim Walz launched on Tuesday his campaign for a second term as Minnesota governor, leaning into his administration's response to COVID-19 and focusing his messaging on rebuilding the state from the pandemic's toll.

The Democrat will seek re-election next fall alongside Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, after an unprecedented first term dominated by the virus and civil unrest that erupted following George Floyd's killing in May 2020.

"The fight's not over but we've got the ball back," Walz said in a video release Tuesday, clutching a football. "We're on offense and we're making progress. But the same people who blocked us are trying to take us backward."

The former coach, schoolteacher and congressman from Mankato handily won the governor's race three years ago with a coalition built around a message of bridging rural and urban divisions in the state.

Now, Walz is embarking on his re-election campaign in an even more polarized political landscape than when he took office, with a recent Minnesota Poll showing the governor with sagging approval ratings, particularly in rural areas and in metro suburbs, a crucial political battleground in any statewide race.

More than a half-dozen candidates are already seeking the Republican nomination to challenge him next year, including former Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, state Sen. Michelle Benson and former state Sen. Scott Jensen. They're tapping into conservatives' frustration over Walz's mandated closures of schools and businesses and mask requirements, and sounding the alarm about rising crime rates in Minneapolis.

"When congressman Walz first ran for Governor, he promised a one Minnesota vision where Minnesotans across the state would be valued and have a voice. It is clear his message was nothing but an empty promise," Benson said in a release responding to Walz's announcement.

Both sides are making COVID and public safety top issues in the 2022 campaign. Walz and Flanagan highlighted taking the "first step" in passing police reform measures with a divided Legislature in response to Floyd's killing, and their video offered a preview of their COVID-19 messaging against Republicans.

"Their dangerous views discouraging vaccines and masking and downplaying COVID put politics ahead of science and put lives at risk," Flanagan said.

Walz's approval rating spiked at the start of the pandemic but declined after a year of COVID-19 restrictions and turmoil following police shootings. A September Minnesota Poll found his approval rating had dipped to 49%, with 44% saying they disapproved of his job as governor and 7% unsure.

The challenge for Walz and Flanagan will be bringing attention to issues other than COVID that the administration has worked on. In the video, Walz cites a list of accomplishments during his first term: spending on education, child care, new clean energy initiatives and investments in infrastructure.

"As we rebuild, we must continue fighting for all Minnesotans and work to ensure every child in Minnesota receives a world-class education, that there are good-paying jobs in every corner of the state, and that every family has the opportunity to succeed," Walz said in a release.

He and Flanagan must also work to unite divisions within their own party, including anger from progressives who oppose the Line 3 pipeline project and law enforcement response to protests following the April police shooting of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center.

Republicans face their own hurdles in trying to unseat Walz, including attempting to break a losing streak for governor that stretches back to 2010. No Republican has won the governor's office or any other statewide office since former Gov. Tim Pawlenty was reelected in 2006.

Walz's announcement Tuesday comes after months of quiet preparations for a second run, including hiring campaign staff and raising money. The campaign will look different from how it did three years ago, with COVID-19 cases still cropping up across the state, due to the more infectious delta variant.

The campaign hosted a virtual event Tuesday evening with supporters. Instead of big rallies, the candidates will travel the state and host a more intimate series of backyard conversations, according to the campaign announcement.

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042