In 1968, Minnesota voters decided to give complete control of state government to the Republicans/Conservatives. (Unlike the governor, the Legislature was then non-partisan. When the newly-elected arrived in St. Paul, they then joined either the “Conservative” or the “Liberal” caucus.)

In 1968, with Republican Gov. Harold LeVander already at mid-term, the Conservatives won legislative majorities in the House and Senate. No one knew it at the time, but it was the last time Republicans had complete control of Minnesota state government.

In the subsequent 51 years, the DFL has had full control of state government for 14 years (the last time being in 2013-14), and control has been split between the two parties for 37 years. Blaming the GOP for the state’s problems is difficult when it has not been fully in charge for 51 years.

Since 2011, the DFL has held the governor’s office, so whatever incompetence has been displayed by the state bureaucracy is its responsibility. Whether it was screwing up the rollout of COVID vaccinations back in February and March, or previously botching the implementation of MNsure, having to spend an extra $100 million for a do-over installation of drivers’ license registration software, ignoring child and senior citizen abuse reports, or allowing up to $100 million in annual fraud in the Child Care Assistance Program, those bureaucratic failures all came under DFL governors.

So it was that Wednesday, former Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, announced his candidacy for governor. He enters a race that presents the Republicans with perhaps their best chance in a half century to take control of state government.

Gazelka is the sixth Republican to enter the race. He became Senate majority leader when the GOP took control in 2017. For the past three years, the Senate has provided the only roadblock to complete DFL control.

Like all Republican incumbents who don’t want to face a Trumper in a primary, Gazelka has been steadfastly supportive of former President Trump. The truth is, Trump is looking better these days than when the Democrats were busy impeaching him. It turns out that his successor, Joe Biden, isn’t any better at controlling a pandemic. Plus, most of the blame for the poor planning that went into the Afghanistan pull-out rests with Joe.

With Biden’s popularity falling, that should give a boost to the Republicans next year, but the key will be in how Gazelka and the other GOP hopefuls lay out their agenda for the state. Unless the Minneapolis DFL can pull off a miracle to reduce crime with their “defund the police” plan, Gazelka believes law and order will be the biggest issue. Regardless of whom the Republicans nominate, voters can expect to see ad after ad of Minneapolis burning in the wake of the George Floyd killing, while being reminded of incumbent Gov. Tim Walz’ failure to respond to rioters in a timely manner.

Gazelka is no shoo-in for the nomination, but DFLers seem to fear him the most. They took pot shots at him throughout the last couple of legislative sessions, a few of which bordered on the personal. However, what Gazelka brings to the table is a decency that has been in short supply in recent politics. He’s a faithful Christian who takes his religion seriously. He has had COVID and recovered. Far left extremists have picketed his insurance office in Baxter. He has handled all the slings and arrows of modern politics with grace.

Of the other six Republicans in the race, the two biggest threats to Gazelka winning the party’s endorsement appear to be state Sen. Michelle Benson, an accountant from Ham Lake and former Sen. Scott Jensen, a doctor from Chaska. Most observers believe the election will be decided in the suburbs, so Benson and Jensen both bring that background to the race. While all Republicans are pro-life and almost all DFLers are pro-choice these days, if the new Texas anti-abortion law becomes a bigger issue than in recent elections, a slight advantage may go to Benson, simply because she is a woman.

Regardless, these three are the only ones in the race with statewide visibility and who hold the likelihood of raising enough dollars to be competitive against the well-funded Walz. The other three would have to self-finance a race.

The wild card in the race is the My Pillow Guy. If Mike Lindell runs, all bets are off. Minnesotans have a penchant for “celebrity” candidates who gained fame before entering politics. Do the names Rudy Boschwitz, Al Franken and Jesse Ventura ring a bell? Still, if Lindell runs, the race will become a referendum about Trump, who lost the state in both 2016 and 2020. It is hard to see Lindell doing any better.

No matter who wins the GOP’s endorsement, as both parties have shown in recent years, it is no longer a guarantee of a primary election win, much less a November victory. Walz continues to convince many Minnesotans that his shutting down the economy and schools to stop COVID saved many lives. Did it? Was allowing Minneapolis to burn worth it? Should schools be open to in-person learning, with or without a mask mandate? Does the state bureaucracy need new leadership?

That’s what Minnesota voters will decide in 14 months.

Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at westwords.mcr@gmail.com.

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