Chaska doctor, COVID-19 skeptic wins GOP endorsement in governor’s race

Scott Jensen wins after nearly nine hours of voting, nine ballots at GOP convention

By: - May 14, 2022 6:28 pm

Chaska doctor Scott Jensen was endorsed by Republicans at their state convention Saturday in Rochester, with the help of Mike Murphy’s surprise endorsement. Photo by Deena Winter

Chaska family doctor Scott Jensen, who rose to prominence by questioning the scientific community’s consensus about the danger of COVID-19 and the safety of vaccines, won the Republican Party endorsement for governor Saturday in Rochester.

Jensen sought to unify the 2,200 or so delegates after a long day of voting and horse trading: “Together we can absolutely bring that message to Tim Walz: ‘Game over, you’re done.'”

During the past 14 months, Jensen became a regular on Fox News and talk radio, where he used his medical bona fides to question COVID-19 mitigation measures like restaurant and school closures and masks. He then questioned the safety of vaccines. His running mate, former Vikings player Matt Birk, once proudly announced he would not get vaccinated. 

After a single term in the Minnesota Senate, Jensen had become known as an at times unconventional lawmaker, willing to flirt with Democratic colleagues on ideas like gun control, marijuana legalization and a public health insurance option for residents of greater Minnesota. 

Walz and his Democratic allies, however, are sure to call out his comments on COVID-19, as when he called it a “mild four-day respiratory illness” early in the pandemic, and frequently shared alarmist ideas about vaccines that have proven safe and effective. 

DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin released a statement saying Republicans chose the “most extreme and dangerous candidate to lead their party” this fall. 

“In just the last two weeks, Scott Jensen has promised to ban abortion for rape victims and to throw one of his political opponents in jail. Minnesotans want their leaders to focus on helping working families, but Scott Jensen is only interested in his far-right political agenda.”

The convention’s second day featured fiery rhetoric that moved farther right as the day wore on and the field was whittled down from five over the course of nearly nine hours, with one candidate after another professing to be the most outsider, God-fearing, anti-abortion, gun-rights-loving candidate of all.

“I’ve never seen an abortion, I’ve never done an abortion and I wouldn’t,” Jensen said at one point, deflecting criticism that he worked for Planned Parenthood during his medical training.

As the day wore on, their promises became increasingly bold: Jensen vowed to commute Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter’s prison sentence during his first month in office. Potter was convicted of shooting Daunte Wright during a traffic stop last year.

Jensen, who has mused about eliminating the state income tax, again said that Secretary of State Steve Simon should be imprisoned for changing elections laws in 2020 to make it easier to vote during a pandemic.

Former congressional candidate Kendall Qualls finished second, unable to persuade the delegates that a conservative Black Army veteran who grew up in the Harlem projects would be Democratic Gov. Tim Walz’s “worst nightmare.”

Qualls fended off allegations that he wasn’t anti-abortion enough, saying the Black community has been devastated by abortion.

Former Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and dermatologist Neil Shah fell earlier in the day, and then Shah threw his support behind far-right candidate Mike Murphy, briefly propelling him to first place. 

The little-known Lexington mayor later dropped below the threshold to stay in the three-way race and then surprised the crowd by endorsing Jensen.

Murphy then played a key role in the final rounds of voting, claiming Qualls briefly offered him the position of lieutenant governor. Murphy said that he asked Qualls what his role would be, and Qualls reneged on the offer after he talked about his vision for the campaign. So he endorsed Jensen, calling Qualls a “sellout.”

Later, Qualls told the convention Murphy came into his war room “to talk about opportunities” and they discussed him being on the ticket or in his administration, and because Murphy didn’t get his way “he stormed out and went straight to Scott Jensen.”

Qualls said Murphy invited him to join his campaign three months ago, and he said no.

“This is nothing more than a retaliation move,” Qualls said of Murphy’s endorsement of Jensen.

“We were talking options; we never landed on a deal,” Qualls said in one of his last pitches to delegates.

It wasn’t enough, and Jensen finally surpassed the 60% threshold necessary to clinch the endorsement in the ninth round of voting. 

Carrie Schroeder of Elgin attended her first convention after getting involved in politics after she was fired from her job at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. She supported Murphy for governor, but said she’ll support Jensen.

Travis Liffrig of Mazeppa attended his third convention, and was skeptical of the electronic “clickers” used to tally votes, but by the end he was impressed with them. The previous two conventions used paper ballots and were much more sluggish.

On Friday, conservative attorney Kim Crockett was endorsed for secretary of state, newcomer and attorney Jim Schultz for attorney general and Ryan Wilson (unopposed) for state auditor. 

There is talk of businesswoman Kelly Jahner-Byrne challenging Crockett in the primary and attorney general candidate Doug Wardlow said he was praying about his campaign’s “next steps” after he was beaten by Schultz.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.