Tim Walz rode into the governor's office three years ago on the largest margin of victory of any candidate in nearly two decades and with an expansive agenda to bridge urban and rural divides.

Now the political ground has shifted beneath his feet, with his response to COVID-19 fueling criticism from opponents on the right and George Floyd's killing and the law enforcement debate that followed prompting backlash from his own party on the left.

As he seeks another four years as governor, the former congressman and teacher is trying to hold together his coalition, threading the needle between his response to crises that have dominated his term and the agenda he ran on.

"This is going to be a very different election than anything we've maybe had in the last three cycles," said Brad Coker, director at Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy. "And Minnesota is always full of surprises."

A September Minnesota Poll showed Walz's approval ratings have dipped below 50%, likely tied to similarly sinking approval ratings for President Joe Biden in Minnesota, said Coker. Walz's suburban numbers in the Minnesota Poll dropped into the low 40s in September, a "soft area" that should be concerning, Coker added.

"The suburbs are not being driven by social issues, it's being driven by economic issues, and that kind of thing does trickle down to the governor's race," Coker said. "The economy, pocketbook issues, the price of gas, the price of home heating and oil. Those are all things that cause people to get anxious and tend to be more in favor of change."

Walz faces the challenge of running as the governor with a record of taking unprecedented steps to respond to the global pandemic, limiting residents' movements, closing businesses and classrooms and instituting mask mandates. Those tensions are particularly pronounced outside the metro area, where a majority of voters said they disapprove of his job performance. His approval rating was lowest in southern Minnesota, which he served in Congress.

"Generally, he'll not draw the votes he did four years ago from greater Minnesota. The other question is, will progressives abandon ship?" said Steven Schier, a retired political science professor.

More than a half-dozen Republicans are angling to challenge Walz next fall and break the party's decadelong losing streak for governor. The candidates are tapping into anxiety in the conservative base over masks and concerns about the possibility of a vaccine requirement.

Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan are not shying away from COVID as a campaign issue, framing their administration as one that made the "tough calls" and followed the science in a campaign announcement last week.

They cast Republican positions on vaccines and the virus as "dangerous" views that will move Minnesota backward. Schier said Walz is flipping the GOP strategy and going on offense on his COVID response.

"The virus is going to be the issue that they'll use against the GOP, arguing that he has kept the state safe and they would have potentially hurt thousands with their policies on the virus," he said.

Longtime DFL operative and former party chair Mike Erlandson said Walz has a chance to define himself and the issues in the race while Republicans remain internally divided. Following the science and promoting vaccines is a message that is likely to play well with suburban women, a critical voting bloc e concerned about the health and safety of their kids in schools. It is also demographic where Republicans have historically failed to gain traction.

"You've got to own it," Erlandson said. "The fact that he is not afraid to run on his record is admirable. The reality is, he encountered the most challenging thing any governor could encounter, which was a pandemic."

Walz said last week that there is more work to be done to rebuild the state from the pandemic's toll, re-upping the "One Minnesota" message he used in 2018 to pull in support from some rural voters, as well as boost turnout in populous urban cores.

As COVID remains at the forefront of the administration's day-to-day work, it will be hard for the governor to put the spotlight on other priorities, particularly equity issues that were reignited by Floyd's killing.

Walz is touting the "first step" police reform measures passed last year with a divided Legislature, but he has taken heat from progressives over his administration's role in coordinated law enforcement response to civil unrest after Floyd's death, as well as tactics used on protesters in Brooklyn Center after the fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright this spring.

Meanwhile, Republicans are attacking Democrats over rising crime rates in Minneapolis and a ballot initiative up for a vote in November that could remove minimum staffing requirements for officers.

"I feel like that may actually be a conversation that the GOP drives and the governor will have to respond to the messaging on that," said former Minneapolis DFL state Sen. Jeff Hayden, who represented the district where Floyd was killed.

Walz has said he's opposed to the amendment, but Hayden said the governor also needs to clearly articulate his own vision on equity to shore up and turn out support in DFL-rich territory like Minneapolis.

"I'm watching out for how the governor messages the work that he's done around equity and communities of color," Hayden said. "That will hopefully help with some of the indigestion you're seeing on the left."

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042

Twitter: @bbierschbach