BLAINE, MINN (WCCO) — State Sen. Michelle Benson, who has been a frequent critic of Gov. Tim Walz’s pandemic response, has announced her campaign for the Republican nomination to challenge him next November. If elected, she would become the first woman governor in Minnesota.

“Minnesota should be a place where dreams can grow. Where families succeed. It will be hard work, but together, we can make Minnesota safer, better, and stronger,” Benson said in a statement.

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She will make her formal announcement Wednesday morning in Blaine.

Benson is the latest to jump into the race, following three others: Scott Jensen, a physician and former state senator; Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy; and Neil Shah, who is also a doctor.

The Ham Lake Republican is serving her fourth term in the Minnesota Senate and chairs a key health policy committee in the GOP-controlled chamber. She has clashed with Walz and his administration’s pandemic restrictions over the last several months, foreshadowing what will like be a general election campaign issue.

State Sen. Michelle Benson (credit: michelle4mn.com)

She already nodded to COVID-19 criticisms in her initial campaign statement, decrying an “extreme agenda” that she said is dividing Minnesota with “radical, leftist policies.”

“Trying to defund the police while crime rates are skyrocketing. Shutting down schools, and crippling neighborhood businesses, when the science and common sense says it’s safe to keep them open,” she said. “I’ve seen enough, and it’s time to get to work.”

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In a statement about her candidacy, Benson touted her Minnesota roots, her record in the legislature and her experience as an auditor.

The GOP field of candidates is taking shape just over a year from the 2022 elections, where power in St. Paul hangs in the balance. The governor’s office is and all 201 seats in the Minnesota Legislature are on the ballot.

Gazelka To Also Run?

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, announced Wednesday morning that he will be stepping down to focus on the “next chapter” of his political life.

Gazelka plans to be part of the party’s success, but he wants someone else to helm the Senate caucus as he pursues “the next chapter in my political life.” Gazelka did not elaborate on what that next chapter would be.

Gazelka is also mulling a bid for governor and is expected to make an announcement soon.

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Walz has not formally launched re-election campaign, though he is expected to do so. A Republican has not won a statewide race in Minnesota since Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who was first elected in 2003 and served until 2011.

Caroline Cummings