Sen. Paul Gazelka mulls 2022 run for Minnesota governor

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, says he's ready and capable of making a run for governor, but the question is: Should he?

State Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, smiles Thursday, July 1, 2021, after returning to Brainerd after the special legislative session. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD, Minn. — Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, is mulling a run for governor during the 2022 midterms, a high-stakes race that could be shaped by powerful forces, both past and present.

And, if he were to win, it would mark a comeback for a party that’s failed to win statewide seats in more than a decade. Judging by recent history, the Republicans’ track record in statewide elections in Minnesota haven’t been confidence-building, to say the least.

The first big question is simple: Does Gazelka have what it takes to buck the trend and win the gubernatorial seat for the GOP in 2022? The answer is equally simple: He doesn’t know, at least not yet. He would take 40 days to consider his candidacy thoroughly before making a determination.

“I need to take a nap first, but I’m looking at it,” a visibly exhausted Gazelka said with a chuckle, Thursday, July 1. The majority leader was fresh off a grueling special session in St. Paul. “I have to ask the question: Are people better off with where the governor led us in the last couple of years or not? I think there's a lot of people that are not going to be happy with the decisions he made. I think there's a lot of business owners and their employees that are not going to be happy. I think there's a lot of people frustrated with how he handled the ( George Floyd ) riots. These are major issues that I don't think people will forget.”

“I’m ready and capable,” he said. “But, the question is, should I?”


Sen Paul Gazelka mulls governor run

The second big question is a bit more complicated: Has the political climate of Minnesota evolved in such a way where electing a Republican governor — more in line with the state’s purple political past — poses a realistic possibility?

In 2018, Gov. Tim Walz enjoyed a comfortable victory over GOP candidate Jeff Johnson, marking the third consecutive win by Democrats for the governor’s chair, but even in the few years since that time, Gazelka said, the political landscape of America and Minnesota has been changing.

In the current era of upheaval, Gazelka said, a new vision of what it means to be a Democrat and what it means to be a Republican may be emerging. This is, after all, an era of anti-establishment figures like former President Donald Trump, he said, and social forces like COVID-19, Black Lives Matter and economic instability means it isn’t the same political scene as it was just three years ago. The paradigm is shifting, he added, and this presents opportunities for Republicans going forward.

State Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, talks Thursday, July 1, 2021, about the special legislative session and his hopes for the future at the Brainerd Dispatch. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“The police gave me their Legislator of the Year Award. That would have never happened 10 years ago. Frankly. Ten years ago you never would have had (state Sen. and former DFL senate leader) Tom Bakk say that he supports me. That would have never happened even four years ago,” Gazelka said. “The blue collar trades — the pipe fitters, electrical contractors, carpenters union — they're fed up with Walz, they're fed up with Biden because they've been stopping pipelines and mining and timber and agriculture and sales. There’s this realignment where people are realizing who really is defending our jobs, who really is defending our way of life.”

This realignment, as Gazelka puts it, isn’t a one-sided affair either. Republicans have been making a concerted effort to court trade organizations, unions and blue-collar institutions disillusioned with DFL politics after decades of loyalty to the liberal party.


In contrast to Republican orthodoxy as it has been the last 40 to 50 years, Gazelka spoke approvingly of unions and their role as an anchor for local communities. He expressed skepticism about Right to Work laws — popular initiatives in Republican-dominated states, which have also garnered criticism as Draconian and laws that favor employers to the detriment of workers — and he pointed to issues like rising crime rates in the Twin Cities as common ground where the GOP can forge a new coalition.

And there may not be a better figure in the Minnesota GOP than Gazelka to form such a coalition. First elected to represent Senate District 9 in 2012 and ascending to leadership of the GOP caucus in 2017, the insurance agent’s rise to prominence has been meteoric, both in terms of how rapidly his political profile has grown, as well as how visible Gazelka is across the state and in the national Republican party.

“The blue collar trades — the pipe fitters, electrical contractors, carpenters union — they're fed up with Walz, they're fed up with Biden because they've been stopping pipelines and mining and timber and agriculture and sales. There’s this realignment where people are realizing who really is defending our jobs, who really is defending our way of life."

— Paul Gazelka, Senate majority leader

After eking out razor-thin majorities in the Minnesota Senate three of the last four election cycles, the senate majority leader is, in effect, the most powerful Republican in the state. In the nation’s only divided Legislature and in a state at the heart of national debates over police brutality, the pandemic response, economic revitalization and deepening rural-urban divides, Gazelka has often served as the face — and lightning rod — for a lonely conservative bastion against liberal dominance in other branches of Minnesota government.

It’s still up in the air whether the standard bearer for the Minnesota GOP in 2022 will be, in fact, Gazelka. He noted there are other potential takers, such as state Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, or former state Sen. Scott Jensen who are tossing their hats in the ring for the gubernatorial race. One certainty is the 2022 race is shaping up to be very different from recent elections.

These factors, coupled with Americans’ natural propensity to favor the opposition during midterm elections, are encouraging for the Minnesota GOP.

“I think what you're going to have is a midterm swing … and what almost always happens is whoever the president is the other party does better in a midterm, so we've got all of these things happening that I think bodes really well for Republicans as long as we pick the right candidate that can win,” Gazelka said. “We know how to win narrow victories. They're always narrow, and whoever the Republicans put up for the governor position, it will be a narrow victory.”


Fighting against history

Whoever is the 2022 Republican candidate for Minnesota governor, they will be fighting against a recent history that has favored Democrats at the state level.

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty was the last member of the GOP elected to statewide office, leaving office in 2011 after governing in St. Paul since 2003. In the Senate, readers may remember the tumultuous end to former Sen. Norm Coleman’s tenure, when he lost by a narrow margin to the Democratic candidate Al Franken in a lengthy recount battle back in 2009.

Mary Kiffmeyer, now seated as a state senator from Big Lake, is the last Republican to serve as secretary of state, a role she filled from 1999 to 2007. It’s a similar story for state auditor, when Patricia Anderson also left office in 2007. Minnesota Attorney General? Readers would have to travel all the way back to 1971, when Douglas Head was the last Republican to serve before a line of DFLers extending to Keith Ellison today.

Suffice to say, aside from a brief period when Michelle Fischbach — now U.S. congresswoman, then state senator — was procedurally appointed to the role of lieutenant governor from January 2018 to January 2019, Republicans haven’t been able to crack DFL dominance in statewide races since former President Barack Obama’s first term in the early 2010s.

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