Attorney General Lori Swanson waited until June before announcing that she would run for governor instead of seeking a fourth term. Ellison quickly decided to give up his safe Minneapolis-area congressional seat to seek her job instead. Then his ex-girlfriend accused him of domestic abuse.
Suddenly the virtually unknown Wardlow — who was a lawyer for a conservative Christian legal advocacy group — became a realistic contender. A Star Tribune/Minnesota Public Radio poll last month gave Wardlow a slight lead. The last GOP attorney general, Doug Head, served one term before losing the 1970 gubernatorial race to Democrat Wendell Anderson.
Ellison has been a national political figure since 2006, when, after serving two terms as a state representative, he became the first Muslim elected to Congress.
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A leader in the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, he became deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee last year. Then his former girlfriend accused him over the summer of dragging her off a bed during an argument in 2016. Ellison repeatedly denied her allegations.
Not only did Ellison become a lightning rod in the attorney general’s race, Republicans in other races attacked their Democratic opponents for failing to denounce him. While an investigation commissioned by Democratic leaders declared the allegations unsubstantiated, Wardlow called it a whitewash.
During Wardlow’s single term in the Minnesota House, he backed so-called right-to-work legislation to block unions from collecting mandatory dues. He also tried unsuccessfully to stop the state from setting up the MNsure health insurance exchange.
After losing in 2012, he joined the Alliance Defending Freedom, leading its unsuccessful fight in a U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage in 2015. He also litigated against letting transgender students use bathrooms of their choice. And he defended a Michigan funeral home that fired a transgender employee.
Ellison vowed to use the attorney general’s office to fight President Donald Trump on immigration and other issues. While Wardlow presented himself as an apolitical alternative, he was recorded as saying at a private event that he wanted to fire 42 Democratic attorneys and replace them with Republicans. He said he misspoke.