Scott Jensen gets boost in governor’s race with strong showing in Republican straw poll

By: and - February 2, 2022 12:34 am

Tom Workman, a Carver County commissioner, tallies votes in Chanhassen High School for the Republican straw poll for governor during precinct caucuses on Feb. 1, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Former state Sen. Scott Jensen was a clear favorite among Republican caucus-goers on Tuesday night, where party activists had the chance to weigh in for the first time on the race for governor. 

Jensen won 38% of the vote in the GOP straw poll among a crowded field of seven candidates vying for the party’s nomination and to beat DFL Gov. Tim Walz in November. Former Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka came in a distant second with 14%, signaling party activists’ preference for charisma over governing experience. 

Jensen, a doctor from Chaska, has gained national prominence through Fox New appearances and viral social media videos, in which he contradicts mainstream medical views on COVID-19 and vaccinations. 

His popularity among party activists was even stronger in Chanhassen and his hometown of Chaska, where he won 60% of 248 votes cast. 

“He’s our family doctor so I have a bias, of course,” said Jake Meyer at the Republican caucus in Chanhassen High School. “He saw my grandpa at the end of his years and ensured that he had an incredible last few years.” 

Meyer, a 39-year-old tax software salesman, had never attended a party caucus before Tuesday night but saw Jensen’s Facebook post asking supporters to turn up. He’d also never donated to a political campaign before Jensen but was inspired by his stances against COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates. 

“We’re two years into this thing and they’re acting like it’s still the beginning,” Meyer said. “I need change and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that happens.”

Jensen’s victory in the straw poll adds momentum to his campaign, which has raised more money than all other Republican candidates combined as of the latest campaign finance reports. 

Jensen has raised $1.2 million, more than twice the $546,000 raised by Gazelka. 

Caucus coordinators across the state reported high turnout, showing the kind of enthusiasm Republicans need to take control of the Legislature and win the governorship, which they haven’t done since 2006. 

“This is a huge turnout,” said Sandra Kretsch, 64, who is split between Gazelka and Jensen. “I think everybody kind of trusted that the government was taking care of things and now I think they’re not satisfied with what’s going on, so they feel like this is our chance to speak up.” 

Some 248 Republican activists gathered in Chanhassen High School on Feb. 1, 2022 as part of the precinct caucuses. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

With 99% of precincts reporting, more than 17,800 Republicans had participated in the caucus, the highest since 2010 when 20,000 Republican voters showed up

At precinct caucuses, attendees elect delegates and vote on potential changes to the party’s platform that will be sent to a regional convention before possibly moving on to the state convention. 

The governor straw poll offers a first look into how party activists are sizing up their candidates, but the state GOP won’t endorse a candidate until the state convention in May. All the GOP candidates have said they’ll follow the party’s endorsement and drop out of the race if they don’t get it.

In Delano, concerns about COVID-19 restrictions, rising violent crime and tax rates drove the highest caucus turnout in years. More than 150 people from Delano and surrounding townships gathered in the Delano High School auditorium, and about one-third of them raised their hands when Rep. Joe McDonald, R-Delano, asked how many were first-time attendees.

Among them was Brenda DeVries, a nurse who said concerns about “medical freedom,” school choice and support for law enforcement motivated her to get more involved in the political process. Before the caucus began, DeVries said she hadn’t settled on a gubernatorial candidate yet and hoped to learn more about their platforms during the caucus.

Early in the evening, Luke Bauman of the Wright County GOP told attendees they never had to worry about voting for delegates in the past — usually, they didn’t have enough volunteers to fill all 25 of the precinct’s slots.

This year, nearly 30 people indicated interest in being delegates, setting off a lengthy debate about protocol for selecting delegates and alternates as attendees struggled to remember the process. DeVries was one of the hopeful delegates and told attendees she was leaning toward voting for Jensen but hadn’t made a final decision.

Others, like Cari Conniff, brought years of caucusing experience to Tuesday’s event. Conniff came prepared with a typed-up list of her top issues, including voter ID, “critical race theory” and immigration. 

Nancy Jacobsen, 79, attended the caucuses in Chanhassen for the first time on Tuesday to lend her support to Gazelka. She said her top issues are pornography and underage sex trafficking. 

Those are two issues that have roiled her own party recently, with major Minnesota GOP donor and political strategist Tony Lazzaro facing multiple counts of sex trafficking including minors. Lazzaro allegedly paid teenage girsl with cash, gifts and lavish meals in exchange for sex. His arrest led to the undoing of former MN GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan, who was ousted in August. 

Asked about Lazzaro, Jacobsen said, “No matter where it is, it’s wrong. It’s not right.” 

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.

Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.