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State Sen. Michelle Benson Enters GOP Race For Governor; COVID Emerges As Top Issue

BLAINE, Minn. (WCCO) -  Minnesota's pandemic response and public safety are quickly emerging as central campaign issues for the widening pool of GOP hopefuls vying to unseat Gov. Tim Walz and break a 15-year streak of losing statewide office.

State Sen. Michelle Benson on Wednesday morning announced her bid to be the Republican nominee challenging Walz next November. She joins former state senator and physician Scott Jensen, dermatologist Neil Shah and others with hopes to lead the state. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka stepped down from his leadership post earlier Wednesday in a move that likely is a precursor to his own run for governor.

Michelle Benson
State Senator Michelle Benson (Credit: CBS)

All four have been vocal critics of the Walz administration's pandemic policies—and there are early signs that will be a theme of the Republican primary and general election campaigns.

Benson during her launch in Blaine denounced Walz for shutting down schools and businesses, saying that those decisions have created a divide "that grows wider each day he's in office." Shah and Jensen both spoke at a recent rally against mask and vaccine mandates.

"I think I understand the stories of Minnesotans and what they've been through the last year and I think that will set me apart and make me a good governor," she said, noting how she tried to balance doing remote legislative work while her daughter learned remotely after schools shut down.

COVID-19 restrictions and the governor's use of special executive powers were political flash points at the state capitol over the last year-and-a half and even though the peacetime emergency is over, pandemic issues persist.

Benson said she believes Walz's executive authority and "medical freedom"—or opposition to vaccine mandates—are the two key issues energizing the base.

"I think the Republican Party is very energized when you see how Washington is behaving and how Tim Walz has acted through the pandemic," she said.

Walz, who hasn't formally announced his re-election, has consistently stood by his decisions as having saved lives from a deadly disease. He has jokingly invited his opponents to vote him out if they don't support his leadership during this unprecedented time—the very calculation Republicans hope will lift them to victory.

But whoever the GOP nominee is will have to overcome challenges besetting the state party's infrastructure amid the fallout from Jennifer Carnahan's resignation as chair and federal child sex trafficking charges against a top donor. He or she will also need to clear the hurdle of winning statewide office, which Republicans have not done since former Gov. Tim Pawlenty was re-elected 15 years ago.

Benson already said her campaign is seeking resources outside the state as the Minnesota GOP works to "grow back stronger."

Public safety another key issue for GOP

Gazelka told reporters Wednesday that he believed neither the economy nor a referendum on Walz's policies are most important to voters, but public safety instead.

"That will be the number one issue," Gazelka said. "People are frustrated. They don't feel like their streets are safe. They don't feel like their kids can play outside—that has to change."

Gazelka said there needs to be more police on the streets with "the tools they need," echoing the same arguments he made throughout the legislative session as the DFL pushed for police reform.

Similarly, Benson minutes into her speech announcing her candidacy condemned Democrats for "defunding the police."

Gazelka said he would wait until after the state fair is over to make an announcement about any plans to run for governor. Regardless, he won't seek re-election in his state Senate district, he said.

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