GOP governor candidate Scott Jensen stood outside the shuttered Minneapolis police station that was set ablaze two years ago, urging Minnesotans in a video message to hold Gov. Tim Walz accountable for not deploying the National Guard sooner to quell riots after George Floyd's death.
A few days earlier, Jensen's lieutenant governor running mate, former Minnesota Vikings center Matt Birk, filmed a video from the site where Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, briefly mentioning the "horrific tragedy that took place" there before discussing crime.
The two Republicans are taking their tough-on-crime message to Minneapolis and St. Paul, hoping to appeal to voters concerned about public safety. Their campaign to defeat the DFL governor in November will depend heavily on their performance in the state's two largest cities, which overwhelmingly favor Democrats.
"I really do think that a lot of folks in the urban-dense areas, they're frustrated with their lives," said Jensen, a Chaska physician and former state senator. "You ask them critical questions: Do you feel safer today than you did four years ago? Nobody's answering that question with a yes."
Winning metro voters won't be easy. In 2018, just 29% of Hennepin County voters and 26% of Ramsey County voters chose Republican Jeff Johnson over Walz. The last Republican to win the governor's office, Tim Pawlenty in 2006, won 41% of Hennepin County votes and 36% in Ramsey County.
Democrats aren't convinced Jensen will fare better than Johnson, citing the candidate's support for an abortion ban and comments comparing COVID-19 mandates to Nazi Germany measures.
"You have a message that's so antithetical to the values of the people who live in the suburbs and in the urban core," said Minnesota DFL chairman Ken Martin. "I'm not sure how many visits are going to make up for the fact that you're on the wrong side of where suburban and urban voters are at on these issues."
Jensen believes his conservative positions will resonate with three groups in the metro: immigrant communities, parents concerned about education, and businesses and workers who struggled amid Walz's pandemic shutdown orders.
In July, Jensen met with Hmong community leaders in St. Paul and Muslim worshippers celebrating a holiday at U.S. Bank Stadium. He has met with faith leaders in north Minneapolis and small business owners on Lake Street, he said.
Jensen, Birk and other Republican candidates celebrated the opening of a new Minnesota GOP Somali community center in Minneapolis on Wednesday. In a roughly two-minute speech, Jensen said his party's values align with those of the Somali community: "They want to be free, they want less government and they want to protect life." He then left the event.
At a news conference Friday, Walz said Jensen's appearance at the Somali community center rings hollow after he made comments critical of refugee resettlement a month earlier.
During a July radio interview, Jensen said states should not have to comply with federal orders to resettle refugees if they do not have resources to care for them. Such orders, he asserted, are "undercutting so much of Minnesota's fabric of life."
"They opened that [center] on the very day the story came out that Scott Jensen said immigrants are undercutting the fabric of that," Walz said.
The Jensen campaign said it will blitz the Twin Cities with appearances and advertising in the coming months. The campaign already has billboards up touting its "Safer Streets" message in Minneapolis, St. Paul and nearby suburbs. It will soon air a television ad.
Public safety, they believe, is a top issue in the metro. Jensen said he thinks Minneapolis voters are dissatisfied with "far-left principles" on policing, citing their rejection of a 2021 ballot measure to replace the city's police department with a new department of public safety.
His public safety plan includes designating carjacking a state crime, stiffening penalties for repeat violent offenders and deploying the State Patrol and National Guard to high-crime areas when needed.
In an interview, Birk said Minneapolis is in a "really fragile" state with its crime and police staffing shortage.
"People in Greater Minnesota are concerned about Minneapolis," Birk said. "I think there is kind of a point of no return for cities. We've got to fix it now."
Jeff Hayden, a former Democratic state senator who represented Minneapolis for nine years, said public safety rhetoric from Jensen and Birk may not play well in the Twin Cities.
"I think that they're speaking to people outside of the Twin Cities who come into the Twin Cities for their recreation ... Like, 'Minneapolis is dangerous and so you should be afraid and if you elect me, I'll make Minneapolis safer,' " Hayden said. "People have seen this kind of dog-whistle politics."
The Jensen campaign is optimistic about its chances in St. Paul and east-metro suburbs, said Max Rymer, the campaign's general consultant. Birk is a St. Paul native and has family there.
Earlier this month, Birk drew a crowd for the launch of a new "Matt Birk burger" at Jameson's Irish Bar in West St. Paul. The event came after two St. Paul bars removed Matt Birk burgers from their menus amid criticism of comments he made about rape and abortion. Proceeds from the burger launch went to a nonprofit supporting local law enforcement.
"I'm not showing up in these places because I'm running for office," Birk said. "I've always been in these places."
Brian McClung, who served as communications director for Pawlenty's 2006 re-election campaign, said Jensen will need to outperform Johnson in Hennepin and Ramsey counties to beat Walz. If Jensen draws close to 35% of those votes, he could win, McClung said.
But McClung said Jensen and Birk must be careful with their rhetoric.
Jensen tripled down last week on his comparison of pandemic masking mandates to actions taken by Nazi Germany.
More than 60,000 Jewish people live in the Twin Cities, according to a 2020 study. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas wants Jensen to stop using the analogy, said government affairs director Ethan Roberts.
"There's so many things you could talk about COVID that don't invoke the Holocaust," Roberts said. "Can the worst thing that ever happened to my people not be used to advance an argument about the wisdom of masking?"
The council hopes to meet with Jensen to share its perspective, Roberts said. A Jensen campaign spokesman said the Republican would be happy to talk with the council.
Staff writer Briana Bierschbach contributed to this report.