Minnesota DFL Gov. Tim Walz and Republican opponent Scott Jensen easily dispatched their nominal opposition in Tuesday's primary election, setting the stage for a high-stakes general election battle expected to draw in millions of dollars from across the country.
The two candidates have already spent months attacking each other on abortion access, the economy and crime, painting a dire portrait of the future of the state if the other is elected governor in the fall.
"While tonight's victory may have been more of a formality, it's still a clear signal that Minnesotans want safer streets, a world class education for their children, and an end to soaring inflation," Jensen said in a statement on Tuesday.
Tuesday's contest was quiet compared to the open gubernatorial primary four years ago, when Walz beat a DFL-endorsed opponent and Republican-endorsed candidate Jeff Johnson bested a hefty challenger in former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
On the eve of Tuesday's primary, Walz admitted he was much more engaged in his own intraparty challenge four years ago. This time, he focused his attacks on Jensen, criticizing the physician and former state senator for promoting unproven alternatives to vaccination and for past comments suggesting he would jail Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon over the 2020 election results.
"Character matters. Flip-flopping on issues, putting out false information, that matters. It's not leadership to sit on the sidelines and complain about things or spin conspiracy theories," Walz said. "It's leadership to try and talk to people about finding those solutions."
The end of the primary election season will only intensify attacks in the race and interest from groups across the country. Walz, who has a significant fundraising advantage over Jensen, is already running ads touting his record in his first term as governor. The Democratic Governors Association and other allies have reserved more than $4 million in airtime in Minnesota for the fall election.
"There's a strong story to tell about Governor Walz's record of success and a really compelling story to tell about how dangerous a Jensen administration would be, and those stories are about to be told in a lot of different formats," said Marshall Cohen, political director of the Democratic Governors Association.
Jensen has been taking his message to different platforms as well. He's put up billboards across the state — including Minneapolis — saying the streets will be safer under his administration. In a recent Fox News appearance, Jensen also blamed Walz for the destruction in Minneapolis and St. Paul after George Floyd's killing in 2020.
Julie Kleiner, 61, a longtime resident of Lakeville, voted for Jensen in the Republican primary election on Tuesday. While it was not a head-to-head race with Walz, she emphasized that she was largely influenced to do so because "I did not like Mr. Walz's response to the riots."
In Minneapolis, Rosemary Heim, 66, cast her ballot at Temple Israel in Uptown for Walz, saying he's "done an excellent job dealing with the pandemic and everything that entails."
Unlike other Republicans in competitive races across the country this cycle, Jensen said he has not reached out to Donald Trump or traveled to his Florida resort and hotel Mar-a-Lago to seek the former president's endorsement.
"I don't even know where it is, but I've been to Disneyland," Jensen joked at Farmfest after the first debate in the race.
The Cook Political Report lists Minnesota's governor race as likely Democratic and election forecaster FiveThirtyEight predicts a Walz victory in 89 out of 100 forecasted scenarios. But Republicans, who have not held the governor's office since 2011, say President Joe Biden's lagging polling numbers and high inflation give the party its best shot to win in more than a decade. A recent MinnPost poll found that 42% of likely general election voters would pick Walz, while 40% favor Jensen, a narrow margin that's within the survey's margin of error.
Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan drew no serious challengers in Tuesday's election. They handily defeated perennial candidate Ole Savior in the DFL primary.
After nine rounds of balloting, Jensen won the Republican Party's backing in May and has since rallied his opponents behind his campaign for governor. Jensen, whose running mate is former Minnesota Viking Matt Birk, easily beat candidates Joyce Lacy and Bob "Again" Carney Jr.
While Walz and Jensen's races were uneventful, candidates in the state's two pro-marijuana legalization parties went head-to-head on Tuesday for the chance to appear on the November ballot. Both parties have managed to maintain major party status in Minnesota by getting at least 5% of the vote in one statewide race in the last election.
Steve Patterson beat Darrell Paulsen to represent the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis Party on the ballot this fall. For the Legal Marijuana Now Party, James McCaskel won against candidate Chris Wright.
Hugh McTavish is also on the ballot for governor under the Independence-Alliance, while Gabrielle Prosser filed for governor as a Socialist Workers Party candidate. Neither candidate faced a primary opponent Tuesday.
Staff writers Jessie Van Berkel, Katelyn Vue and Katie Galioto contributed to this report.