Public safety, COVID are top themes as Republicans line up to challenge Attorney General Keith Ellison
Five candidates are seeking the Republican Party endorsement in the election to determine the state's top legal officer.
ST. PAUL — While the state endorsement conventions for the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor and Republican parties remain months away, the races for state attorney general are already taking shape.
Much as is the case with the rest of Minnesota’s politics, the 2022 race to determine the state’s top prosecutor is dominated by the debate over how to address surging violent crime. Some Republicans seeking their party’s endorsement position themselves as “law and order” candidates and use imagery from 2020 civil unrest in their campaign materials.
DFL incumbent Attorney General Keith Ellison, on the other hand, describes himself as a leader for criminal justice reform and touts his record protecting the state’s consumers.
Ellison last November announced his intent to run once again for the office, and five Republicans are vying for their party’s nomination in an increasingly crowded contest — including one candidate who ran against Ellison and lost in 2018.
As Minnesota’s top legal officer, the attorney general represents the state and its agencies in lawsuits, enforces consumer protection and antitrust laws and regulates charities. The office takes consumer complaints and can use its power to prosecute businesses that violate the law. It also assists smaller jurisdictions with fewer resources in prosecuting serious crimes.
The position has become increasingly prominent on the national stage in recent decades. State attorneys general worked together to secure a multi-billion dollar settlement from major tobacco companies in the 1990s, and they recently have worked together in lawsuits against manufacturers, marketers and distributors of opioid painkillers. Attorneys general of the same political party will also often pursue political aims, launching lawsuits to thwart the agendas of national political opponents.
COVID-19 restrictions are another dominant theme in the 2022 Minnesota attorney general race, with Republican candidates saying they oppose vaccine-or-test mandates and shutdown orders. When Gov. Tim Walz ordered bars and restaurants to close in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Ellison’s office was key in enforcement, suing businesses that defied the policy, something many GOP candidates have criticized.
Here is a rundown of the candidates for Minnesota attorney general, so far:
Ellison, who was elected Minnesota attorney general in 2018, represented Minnesota’s Fifth District in Congress for over a decade after first being elected to that position in 2006. In his AG reelection bid announcement, he said he would continue his push to change state policing laws and defend Minnesota’s affordable insulin program from pharmaceutical companies.
In 2021, Ellison led the team of attorneys who successfully prosecuted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd. They also successfully prosecuted former Brooklyn Center Police officer Kimberly Potter in the death of Daunte Wright. The year before, he worked with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety to investigate fatal police encounters to produce a report with recommendations on reducing fatal incidents in the future.
Ellison has drawn criticism from Republicans for his endorsement of the failed Minneapolis ballot measure to replace the city’s police department with a city department of public safety. His 2018 campaign was troubled by an ex-girlfriend’s allegations of emotional and physical abuse. Ellison denied her claims and a DFL-organized investigation found the allegations to be unsubstantiated.
Headed into the 2022 race, Ellison has only a slight cash advantage over his individual GOP challengers. According to the 2021 year-end report from the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board, the sitting attorney general has $245,101. The four candidates seeking the Republican nomination who filed reports for 2021 have more than $375,000 combined.
Doug Wardlow, an attorney for Mike Lindell’s company MyPillow, ran against Ellison and lost in 2018. In a video announcing his 2022 campaign , the one-term state representative from the Twin Cities area styled himself as a “law-and-order” candidate and accused Ellison of “doing nothing” to stop civil unrest following Floyd's murder.
In a December commentary piece for conservative media website Alpha News, he called Potter's manslaughter conviction “a dangerous miscarriage of justice. ” Potter, who said she mistakenly drew her pistol instead of a taser before shooting Wright during a 2021 traffic stop, faces up to 15 years in prison.
Wardlow has criticized Ellison for enforcing Walz’s emergency order shutting down bars and restaurants across the state and called the recent vaccine or negative test requirement instituted by Democratic mayors in Minneapolis and St. Paul “blatantly unconstitutional.” In a statement, he said the recent mandates unduly impact personal freedom and businesses that have already suffered from pandemic-related restrictions.
Like Ellison, Wardlow in the 2018 election faced allegations of past misconduct. A classmate from Eagan High School claimed Wardlow bullied him for being gay. The St. Paul Pioneer Press spoke with multiple classmates who corroborated the story , though Wardlow denied the allegations. Wardlow has also been criticized for his opposition to same-sex marriage .
With $25,191, the 2018 Republican nominee for attorney general lags behind in campaign cash headed into the 2022 election, ranking above only attorney Lynne Torgerson in filed year-end reports.
Lynne Torgerson is a criminal defense attorney working in private practice who places Second Amendment rights high on her list of priorities. She touts her record defending clients in gun rights cases in Minnesota.
Torgerson opposes efforts to defund police departments and vaccine or masking mandates. She called Walz’s COVID-19 lockdown orders “unconstitutional, unnecessary and destructive.”
Torgerson proposes “voter security” investigations in an apparent nod to unfounded allegations of fraud in the 2020 elections. She proposes an investigation of voting machines and supports a return to paper ballots.
Her campaign enters 2022 with $3,017.
Jim Schultz, who describes himself as a fifth-generation Minnesotan and political outsider, enters 2022 as the second best-funded Republican candidate in the race for attorney general. Like Wardlow, his video announcing candidacy for attorney general evokes imagery of 2020 civil unrest in the Twin Cities.
Schultz, like other Republican candidates, opposed proof of vaccine-or-test requirements recently instituted in St. Paul and Minneapolis, describing them as “unfair and foolish” and criticizing their impact on small business. In a statement on the orders, Schultz said he and his wife are vaccinated against COVID-19.
Schultz serves on the board of the Front Line Foundation, a police and first responder-supporting nonprofit, according to his campaign website. He attended the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, graduated from Harvard Law School and returned to Minnesota to practice law in the private sector. He lives in the western Twin Cities metro with his wife and three children.
He enters 2022 with $108,760, second place in the field of Republican candidates for attorney general.
Dennis Smith, a former state representative for a district in the northwest Twin Cities, leads the Republican pack in fundraising at the beginning of 2022. His priorities are somewhat similar to other Republican candidates, though does not explicitly cast himself as a “law and order” candidate in his campaign announcement video .
Like other Republican candidates for attorney general, Smith opposed the ballot measure to replace the Minneapolis Police Department, though on his campaign website he stressed the need for “accountability, transparency and reforming police departments.”
Smith says he supports legislation to encourage police de-escalation tactics, end chokeholds and providing resources to public safety agencies so law officers look like the communities they serve. He also supports body cameras, the creation of a unified system for disciplining law enforcement officers and sentencing reform to end the practice of locking up nonviolent and low-drug possession criminals.
Smith also said he would use his office to take on big tech corporations "silencing the voices of conservatives” by joining other attorneys general to break up major social media platforms he says have become monopolies that threaten free speech and “promote censorship.”
Unique to Smith’s declared priorities among Republican attorney general candidates is a declared commitment to conservation efforts in Minnesota. His priorities include protecting the Boundary Waters and prioritizing green power generation.
The Minnesota Supreme Court recently suspended Smith’s ability to practice law for 30 days and placed him on two years of probation. A complaint from the state law professional conduct board said Smith failed to adequately communicate with his client and tell the client his hourly rate. It also said he mishandled client fees and made “multiple knowingly false statements regarding the progress and status of his client's file.” Smith agreed to the discipline late last year.
Smith has so far vastly out-raised other candidates vying for the Minnesota Republican endorsement, entering 2022 with more than $239,000 in campaign dollars.
A newcomer to the race for Minnesota attorney general , Tad Jude has served as a state legislator, Hennepin County commissioner, and was a district court judge chambered in Stillwater from 2011 to 2021.
Jude, who stepped down from his position as a judge at the end of last year, opposes efforts to defund the police and wants to work with the state Legislature to increase penalties for violent crime. He opposes proof of vaccine requirements at businesses.
Upon Jude’s Monday campaign announcement, the DFL issued a statement criticizing his past record opposing abortion rights.
In 1972, at age 20, Jude was the youngest person ever elected to the Minnesota Legislature.