Keith Ellison held a narrow lead early Wednesday in his bid to win a second term as attorney general, potentially overcoming a vigorous challenge from Republican Jim Schultz in a campaign that pitted Ellison’s call to defend abortion access and maintain focus on consumer protection lawsuits against Schultz’s vision for an AG more dedicated to addressing crime.
Ellison had about 50.7% of the vote compared to Schultz’s 49.2%, with nearly 93% of precincts reporting, according to preliminary results. If Ellison holds on, he would block Republicans from winning the AG’s office for the first time since 1966. And Republicans were trailing in every statewide race, imperiling the party’s shot at its first statewide victory since 2006.
Secretary of State Steve Simon was re-elected over Republican Kim Crockett. And DFL auditor Julie Blaha had a narrow lead over Republican candidate Ryan Wilson.
The incumbent DFLer Ellison trailed others on the statewide ticket in what was a marquee matchup outside of the governor’s race. Gov. Tim Walz won by a much larger margin, and his victory was called by The Associated Press earlier in the night. But Ellison may have won by enough in crucial areas like Hennepin County to hang on for a second term in a night that saw less backlash against Democrats and President Joe Biden in a midterm election than some had predicted.
A campaign focused on crime, abortion, consumer protection
Ellison was first elected as AG in 2018 after serving 12 years in Congress representing the 5th Congressional District centered on Minneapolis and Hennepin County.
His first term, in many ways, was defined by the issue of police accountability. Most notably, the DFLer drew nationwide attention in his term for leading the successful prosecution of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd, likely saving the Twin Cities from further unrest and riots after a tumultuous 2020. He then led the prosecution of another cop who killed a Black man, this time charging Kim Potter of Brooklyn Center with first-degree manslaughter in the killing of Daunte Wright.
But as Schultz ran a campaign focused on addressing crime, Ellison initially centered his re-election bid on abortion. The DFLer said he would defend the right to access abortion outlined in the state constitution, and he promised not to prosecute or extradite anyone who travels from states with stricter laws to Minnesota for the procedure.
He highlighted Schultz’s position on the board of an anti-abortion advocacy group and the Republican’s role leading a pregnancy center that aims to dissuade people from having abortions. Schultz pledged during the primary campaign to go on “offense” on abortion, but he later took a stance in favor of banning the procedure after 20 weeks, which would allow for most abortions. Schultz also said in a debate that he wouldn’t leverage his office for abortion policy.
Polling showed Ellison and Schultz neck and neck for much of the campaign, and one survey by KSTP News in late October found Schultz with a modest lead. A MinnPost/Embold Research poll earlier in October found many undecided voters leaned toward the DFL in other statewide races, suggesting Ellison was struggling to bring home some Democrats.
The progressive AG campaigned earlier in the race with U.S Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar and Cori Bush. But he cut an ad last week with the more centrist U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, perhaps hoping to shore up his standing with moderate voters.
Even amid the close race, Ellison didn’t get as much outside spending help as Gov. Tim Walz to run negative ads against his opponent. The DFL booster Alliance for a Better Minnesota did spend some money late on advertisements to help Ellison, but it was less than their efforts to flood televisions with ads against Republican candidate for governor Scott Jensen.
In the last weeks of the campaign, Ellison also pivoted somewhat, criticizing Schultz for his work at the hedge fund, and said Schultz would hamper important consumer protection work at the aid of big corporations.
Schultz, a 37-year-old private practice business attorney who most recently worked for the hedge fund Värde Partners, won by running a somewhat unorthodox campaign, pledging to address an issue that isn’t usually a primary duty of an AG: violent crime.
County attorneys in Minnesota handle most serious prosecutions. But with crime resonating as a top issue for voters, Schultz promised to dramatically expand the size of a small criminal division that helps those county attorneys — and said he would drain lawyers from a consumer protection unit if the Legislature didn’t pay for his criminal prosecutors.
The Republican from Minnetonka said he would try novel legal strategies to prosecute crime without the permission from county attorneys or the governor that is typically required by law for the AG to intervene. And Schultz also relentlessly hammered Ellison for supporting the Minneapolis charter amendment to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a public safety agency, painting the progressive DFLer as out of step with other Democrats, even in Minneapolis. That approach won him endorsements from prominent law enforcement associations and 40 county sheriffs.
But in a DFL-friendly state, Schultz likely will not overcome the incumbent Democrat. Ellison did not bleed as much support as Schultz would have hoped compared to 2018 in key large counties, including Hennepin, Ramsey and Dakota.
In Hennepin County, Ellison won 68.1% of the vote and held a 207,300-vote margin over Schultz. In 2018, Ellison won 63.2 percent of the vote over Republican Doug Wardlow, and a 198,273-vote margin in the state’s biggest county that year.
And Ellison may have been helped by the lack of a third-party candidate.
Ellison won in 2018 by a roughly 4-percentage point margin. But Grassroots Legalize Cannabis candidate Noah Johnson got roughly 5.71% of the vote that year.
DFL wins secretary of state, leads in auditor’s race
In the other two statewide elected offices, incumbent Secretary of State Simon was cruising to a third term in the office that is best known for overseeing elections. He was ahead of his GOP challenger Crockett by more than 10 percentage points.
And Blaha had a lead of more than 2 percentage points over Wilson though was not topping 50% due to the showing of two legalize marijuana candidates.
This was the year when Minnesota Republicans were expected to break a slump in statewide offices, not having won a statewide election since 2006 when Tim Pawlenty won his second term. But even that election carried a warning for state Republicans when all three other offices went to the DFL with two of those candidates defeating GOP incumbents for secretary of state and auditor.
Media polling put the GOP candidates ahead or in reach, part of a late GOP surge. Suburban voters were reportedly more concerned with inflation than they were with the threat to abortion rights. But the DFL ran stronger in Hennepin County and the vote in suburban counties was similar to a strong DFL year in 2018.
Simon was first elected in 2014 and won reelection in 2018 with 52.3% of the vote in a three-candidate race. He has been a national figure in the state election official response to accusations of voter fraud and election irregularities led by former President Donald Trump. Despite dozens of lawsuits and investigations, no credible evidence was presented that the presidential results weren’t accurate.
“Our system in Minnesota is not perfect,” Simon told DFLers at the party’s event in St. Paul. “But it is fundamentally fair, accurate, honest and secure. You know what? People in Minnesota know it. So tonight Minnesotans said yes to the rule of law and no to the rule of rumor.”
Simon is a former member of the state House where he was a leader in election law issues. Over the last two years, he has done battle with Republicans in the Legislature who have pushed changes in state election law regarding voter ID and provisional balloting. Well before the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, he predicted that unproven post-election accusations of fraud could lead to violence.
Crockett has been on the other side of the election fraud issue, raising complaints both locally and nationally about election law and procedures. She also has been critical of state law that makes early voting and absentee voting easier, arguing that it is better for voting to be secure that convenient.
In an email statement to supporters, Crockett conceded.
“We cannot claim victory tonight, and that is painful,” she wrote, blaming “corrupt elites” for mounting a campaign against her. “I did not win but I am not defeated.”
The race attracted millions of dollars, mostly on the pro-Simon and anti-Crockett side, as part of a national campaign to defend election officials on the ballot this year.
Blaha was first elected in 2018. The former school teacher and union official won her race easily then – by 6 percentage points – but didn’t gain a majority because of the presence of two other candidates from the Libertarian and Legal Marijuana Now parties.
Wilson is a lawyer and former business owner who asserted Blaha could have done more in a fraud case involving a pandemic feeding program and in the over-budget Southwest Light Rail transit project. Neither is under the jurisdiction of the state auditor’s audit authority.
MinnPost reporter Peter Callaghan contributed to this report.