Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka speaks during a press conference on Jun 2, 2021. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka announced he would step down as majority leader on Wednesday morning just hours before fellow Sen. Michelle Benson officially kicked off her campaign for governor in Blaine.
In a letter to his Senate colleagues, Gazelka listed his achievements as leader, including blocking tax increases and expanding their majority by luring two moderate Democrats over to the Republican caucus while once again hinting that he would run for governor.
“I’m so very grateful for the work we’ve accomplished together and believe the caucus is in a very strong position to be successful in the 2022 session and the subsequent election,” Gazelka wrote. “I plan to be a part of that future success but look forward to letting someone else take over serving as leader while I pursue the next chapter in my political life.”
It’s not clear who will replace Gazelka as Republican leader. Senate Republicans will look for someone who can provide a steady hand during an expected special legislative session later this year, as well as the 2022 legislative session. Caucus leaders are also expected to recruit candidates and raise money.
State Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, the current Senate president, is thought to be among the potential candidates.
Gazelka won his leadership role in 2016 after former Sen. David Hann led the party to a narrow one-seat majority in the Senate but lost his own race.
Hann is now running to be chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, after Jennifer Carnahan was recently forced out over allegations of creating a toxic work environment and for her close ties to alleged child sex trafficker Tony Lazzaro.
Gazelka has had an on-again, off-again relationship with DFL Gov. Tim Walz, who is presumed to be running for reelection. They have at times celebrated compromise and a functioning divided government, while at other times been fiercely at odds over issues like the mask mandate and restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Gazelka’s lowest moment as leader came with the death of Republican state Sen. Jerry Relph, whose own daughter blames Gazelka for her father’s COVID-19 death because Senate Republicans hosted a 2020 election victory party, after which Relph became ill.
If Gazelka runs for governor, that’s sure to come up in a general election campaign, but first he’ll have to win the GOP nomination. For more than a year Republican activists were furious that Gazelka wasn’t doing more to take away Walz’s emergency powers, even though the Senate voted numerous times in special legislative sessions to strip him of those powers.
Former Sen. Scott Jensen, who has been in the race for months, has been one of the most prominent critics of COVID-19 precautions. He’s developed a large and passionate national following and is likely to have raised significant money, which will show up on campaign finance reports early next year.
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