‘Minnesota is in trouble’: GOP candidates face off in central Minnesota

Benson said she "doesn’t recognize the state" where she grew up, while Jensen compared the Twin Cities’ ongoing failures to Detroit’s collapse a generation ago.

The six candidates running for the GOP endorsement squared off in Benton County, Minnesota Wednesday night. (Alpha News)

The six top Republicans vying to replace Gov. Tim Walz as Minnesota’s chief executive debated pertinent issues facing Minnesotans Wednesday night in Sauk Rapids.

The Benton County Republican Party organized nearly two hours of discourse among Michelle Benson, Paul Gazelka, Scott Jensen, Mike Murphy, Kendall Qualls, and Neil Shah. More than 300 people attended.

The event occurred only a few days before the Feb. 1 precinct caucuses, the initial meetings where parties select delegates and set their platforms ahead of endorsing a candidate in May. The Minnesota GOP’s endorsement has held up in every primary since 1994.

“Minnesota is in trouble” was a theme, as candidates talked of people leaving the state due to crime, high taxes and failing Democrat leadership.

Benson said she “doesn’t recognize the state” where she grew up, while Jensen compared the Twin Cities’ ongoing failures to Detroit’s collapse a generation ago.

Walz was a frequent target, as candidates slammed the governor over various maladies. The Republicans agreed Walz failed in myriad ways, especially by letting teachers unions shut vulnerable children out of schools the past two years.

“No governor, Republican or Democrat, should be a king,” Gazelka said.

“Your right to your conscience, when it comes to medical procedures, is a preeminent right,” Benson said, referring to Walz’s controversial COVID-19 edicts.

The group also talked about the state’s massive surplus, banning vaccine and mask mandates, the right to life, and election integrity, especially the need for voter ID. Everyone stressed the need for policing, and some bemoaned the Minnesota DFL’s new plan to allow illegal immigrants to participate in caucuses.

Qualls, the businessman and military veteran, joined the field only 18 days ago. He focused on the “promise of America” and crime destroying Minneapolis. Qualls said when he moved to Minneapolis decades ago, it was deemed the safest, cleanest city in America, but that’s no longer the case. If elected, he plans to increase law enforcement’s presence and “deploy them in the Twin Cities, whether the city council wants them there or not.”

Qualls also noted he outperformed then-President Donald Trump in his swing 3rd Congressional District during the 2020 elections.

Shah claimed Minnesotans who left the GOP in recent years will come back if the party focuses on safety, education, and allowing people to keep the money they earn.

Candidate Neil Shah meets with supporters before Wednesday night’s debate. (Alpha News)

Not only did the dermatologist say he’d ban critical race theory his first day, but when teachers unions ignore the ban, as they have elsewhere, he will “go to war.”

“If school districts won’t respect the rights of parents to decide what their children are taught, when they are taught it, and where they are taught it, they’ll need to find a different way to fund their institutions,” Shah said, before adding that schools “will not gaslight you about what they’re actually doing to your children. They will be held to account.”

Jensen hit on Walz’s power grabs while calling himself a maverick for standing up to the governor while in the Minnesota Senate.

Speaking exclusively with Alpha News after the debate, the physician said believes he “established himself as a thoughtful and electable candidate with grave concerns regarding the expansion of government.”

Benson and Gazelka frequently stressed their experience and results in the legislative arena, while others — particularly Murphy on cultural flashpoints, like the Second Amendment and his “health freedom sanctuary city” — relied on their outsider status.

History is with the former. It’s been 56 years since Minnesota elected a governor without public office experience.

Mayor Murphy easily won the post-debate straw poll with 63 votes. In second was Sen. Gazelka with 37 votes.

December poll showed Walz with a comfortable lead over all challengers. Gazelka, as a former majority leader, is the most well known, but also had the lowest favorables.