By Caroline Cummings

ST. PAUL, MINN. (WCCO) — Former Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka on Wednesday entered the race to become Minnesota’s next governor, launching a campaign centered on his conservative credentials and criticism of Gov. Tim Walz’s record.

The campaign announcement at the State Capitol follows months of speculation that he’d seek the Republican nomination for governor and look to break the party’s 15-year losing streak in statewide office.

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Gazelka is serving is fourth term in the Minnesota Senate and spent the last five years as the GOP caucus’ leader, putting him in a powerful position in brokering deals in a divided state government and requiring him to work alongside the very person he is looking to unseat during those negotiations.

“Tim Walz says he wants one Minnesota, but I’ve never seen Minnesotans more divided, angry and afraid than they are today,” Gazelka said. “Is this the road you want to go down?”

The East Gull Lake Republican has been a fierce detractor of Walz’s handling of COVID-19 since it began, and echoed those criticisms on Wednesday when he introduced himself as his competitor. The pandemic, which is likely not ending anytime soon, is already emerging as a key issue a year out from voting.

Paul Gazelka (credit: CBS)

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He called Walz’s shutdowns “irresponsible.” He decried closure of schools as having failed children. He condemned Walz’s use of emergency powers as “abuse.” And he blasted the response to the civil unrest that followed George Floyd’s death as an “inexcusable absence” of leadership from the state’s top leader.

But for his all his criticisms, Gazelka touted his work finding compromises on the state budget with a DFL-controlled House and Walz in the last few years. He said it shows how he can lead the state while pushing a conservative agenda, as he tries to win over the base and Minnesotans voting independent.

“As a Republican, you have to convince the delegates or the passionate side of the Republican Party that you are with them and you have to be able to reach the middle,” Gazelka said, noting his work as a top negotiator at the Capitol. “In the end, I do believe that people will see that I can govern and also that we can hold the line on things that are important to Republicans.”

Walz, who hasn’t formally entered the race for re-election, said he wishes Gazelka well in his bid to become the GOP nominee that faces him on the ballot next year. As Republicans take aim at his pandemic response a year from the general election, Walz said he stands by his decision and welcomes a campaign on that record.

“I think if that’s a referendum on that, I’m quite comfortable talking about how we handled this versus sitting on the sidelines and denying science,” Walz said. “It doesn’t seem like that’s a real positive message.”

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Gazelka enters a field of six other Republicans vying for the nomination, including State Sen. Michelle Benson and Scott Jensen, a physician who once served in the Minnesota Senate as well. Gazelka stepped down his leadership post in the Senate in order to run for governor.

Caroline Cummings