ST. PAUL — Not holding back any punches, state Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, is the next to enter a crowded Republican party primary field vying to be Minnesota’s next governor.

Benson, who holds a high-profile chairmanship in the state Senate, where she has served for a decade, announced her candidacy at a sunny launch event in the Twin Cities suburbs on Wednesday, Sept. 1. Her stated campaign mission was to-the-point: Get incumbent Democrat Gov. Tim Walz out of office.

Citing Walz’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the fallout from George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in 2020, she said, “Minnesotans across the board are less hopeful than they were four years ago.”

“Well, I’ve seen enough,” she said. “I want to bring our shared values back to the forefront. I want us to work together. I was raised where service wasn't about speeches; it was about showing up early and staying until the work was done.”

Benson is entering a crowded primary, which could grow more crowded — and politically dynamic — if and when Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka enters the race, as he is expected. And already vying for the Republican nomination is former state Sen. Scott Jensen, activist Bob Carney, businessman Mike Marti, Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy and physician Neil Shah.

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The 2022 gubernatorial race is also kicking off in a time when the Minnesota Republican Party is on rocky footing, with no chair currently after former-Chair Jennifer Carnahan was ousted.

Asked by reporters how she will stand out in a crowded primary, then compete in the general election with her party’s infrastructure unstable, she answered simply, “Because I can get the most votes and I can win.”

“This isn't going to be an easy path, but I have never taken anything for granted and I've never taken the easy path,” she said. “So whatever work needs to be done, whatever money needs to be raised, whatever coffee shops need to be visited, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to beat those guys and I’m going to be the nominee and I’m going to be the next governor of this state.”

Along with her family and other supporters, Benson had two important political allies in the crowd: State Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, and Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake. Pratt said his attendance Wednesday was an endorsement of Benson’s candidacy, even though his majority leader Gazelka is likely to enter the race.

“I’ve had a chance to work with Michelle more on the ground level,” he said. “Look, certainly Sen. Gazelka has negotiated two budget resolutions by the end of… session. I like to think that Paul’s gotten us to a point. He’s worked well with the current governor. But again, I just have worked closer with Michelle and I think she’d be a great governor.”

Even given the Republican party’s current condition, Benson told reporters that she sees Republican voters in Minnesota being very energized right now, eager to unseat Walz.

“When you see how Washington is behaving and how Tim Walz has acted through the pandemic, I think the base of the Republican party is really energized and ready to go,” she told reporters. “So if the party can harness that energy and build a campaign team, we’re going to do really well.”

Asked for the top two issues she believes are energizing Republicans right now, she said Walz’s use of peacetime emergency powers during the pandemic, and “medical freedom” as it pertains to vaccines. There are currently no vaccine mandates issued by the state of Minnesota.

Nash, in a speech introducing Benson to the crowd, invoked Walz’s 2018 “One Minnesota” slogan, saying that under his tenure, “We have one partisan Minnesota.” Benson said that to mend the escalating tension between Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities, “listening to people, wherever they live, reaching out to people who don’t feel heard, is going to unify us.”

In response to Benson’s announcement, Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chair Ken Martin said her “agenda is reckless and dangerous for Minnesotans.”

“From her first days in office, Michelle Benson has worked to strip health care away from millions of Minnesotans,” he said. “She has belittled those suffering under the skyrocketing costs of insulin… and advocated against a bill intended to save the lives of diabetics dying because of the cost of their medication. (She) championed legislation to allow businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples, spread dangerous misinformation about COVID-19, and worked to make it easier for dangerous people to get guns.”