Minnesota Republicans convene Friday and Saturday for their biennial party convention, and while the GOP won’t formally choose nominees for any offices, the gathering could dramatically winnow the fields for governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and state auditor—posts that are all currently held by Democrats.
That’s because many contenders have pledged, in local parlance, to "abide" by the GOP's endorsement process, meaning they intend to drop out of the August primary if delegates award the party’s backing to someone else. This is a long-running tradition for both parties in Minnesota, though candidates often do forge ahead to the primary even if they miss out on their party's endorsement, and typically state their intention to do so ahead of time. Some, in fact, deliberately bypass the process of wooing convention-goers altogether and take their appeals to voters at large—a strategy that worked out very well for former Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton in 2010.
At the same time, there's also no guarantee that anyone will actually win their party's endorsement in a given race, or that a losing candidate will actually stick with their promise to bail. However, Minnesota’s filing deadline to appear on the primary ballot is May 31, so anyone who falls short this weekend will have just a short while to consider whether to soldier on. (And unlike in some other states, winning at a convention doesn't grant ballot access; all candidates must either gather signatures or pay a filing fee.)
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First, the convention rules. Candidates need to win the support of at least 60% of the 2,200 delegates expected to attend in order to snag the endorsement in a process that usually requires multiple rounds of voting. Trailing candidates are gradually eliminated as they fail to reach thresholds set by the party for each round, but that doesn’t mean there will be one person left standing at the very end.
Unhappy delegates were reminded of this the hard way just a few weeks ago at the local level. For congressional and legislative races, both parties also hold smaller conventions that operate similarly. At the GOP's gathering in the 1st Congressional District, voting stretched into 1 AM but remained inconclusive.
At that point, state Rep. Jeremy Munson led former Department of Agriculture official Brad Finstad 55-35 in the seventh and final round. The remaining 10% had left their ballots blank, marked themselves as undecided, or voted against issuing an endorsement at all. Those holdouts prevailed, as the convention adjourned after weary delegates, who had already been there for 15 hours, decided that neither Munson nor Finstad would hit 60% and there was no point continuing.
Republicans could very well be in for another couple of late-night events because of a dispute on how exactly to count ballots. State party chair David Hann is pushing to use electronic voting, arguing that it’s safe and fast. Some conspiracy-minded delegates, however, are pushing to use paper ballots instead, even though it could take hours to tabulate them across multiple rounds.
But the GOP endorsement is a precious prize worth staying up past bedtime to snag. That’s because, in the last 30 years, only once has a candidate for statewide office lost the endorsement but won their primary, and the circumstances were extremely unusual: Arne Carlson was the incumbent governor in 1994, but delegates viewed him as too liberal and backed conservative former state Rep. Allen Quist instead. Carlson nevertheless handily won the primary and general election as well, but don't expect many Republicans to follow his lead: He's become a total apostate in GOP circles, having regularly endorsed Democrats like Barack Obama and Joe Biden over the years.
Part of the reason the endorsement matters so much is that, as we noted above, many candidates are committed to the process and will end their campaigns if someone else wins the requisite 60%. For those thinking about staying in despite losing out on an endorsement, there are other hurdles as well. As the Star Tribune notes, endorsees receive financial and staffing support from the state party, and many GOP voters may be leery of voting for a candidate who fails to earn the support of delegates—a fervent contingent of activists whose blessing amounts to a conservative stamp of approval.
The biggest race this year is the battle to take on Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, and six Republicans are facing off at the convention in a vote currently set for Saturday: state Sen. Paul Gazelka; former state Sen. Scott Jensen; Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy; healthcare executive Kendall Qualls; dermatologist Neil Shah; and former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek.
Jensen, who has made a name for himself by spreading lies about COVID and the 2020 election, began campaigning for the endorsement far earlier than his opponents, and he was rewarded in early February when he took first at the party’s precinct-level caucuses. Many politicos saw that vote as an early preview of this week’s convention, though it's no certainty that Jensen remains the frontrunner three-and-a-half months later.
All six have publicly pledged to abide by the endorsement, though the Star Tribune writes that some “have softened their comments on the topic as the convention approaches.” However, Hann, the GOP chair, insists that they’ll each stick to their promise, saying, "Every governor candidate has met me one-on-one and told me that same thing: They will abide by the endorsement." He'd very much like that to be the case, of course, because then his candidates can immediately start focusing on the general election, though he may not get his wish.
The contest to face Democratic Attorney General Keith Ellison, meanwhile, is another multi-way race, though one of the candidates is skipping the convention altogether. That contender is former state Rep. Dennis Smith, who argued, “It has become clear that the endorsing convention is a game for insiders.” The field also includes 2018 nominee Doug Wardlow; former judge Tad Jude; and attorneys Jim Schultz and Lynne Torgerson.
Further down the ballot, Attorney Kim Crockett and businesswoman Kelly Jahner-Byrne are squaring off for the endorsement to take on Democratic Secretary of State Steve Simon, while the only notable Republican running to face Democratic state Auditor Julie Blaha is businessman Ryan Wilson.
P.S. The state Democratic Party, known as the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, holds its convention May 20-22, though none of the party’s four statewide incumbents face any serious intra-party opposition. Minnesota Democrats also tend to prioritize the endorsement process less than their GOP counterparts: Walz, notably, won his 2018 primary over a DFL-endorsed opponent eight years after Dayton secured the nomination the same way.