MOORHEAD, Minn. — Forget for a moment that, for now, the two most recognizable potential Republican candidates for governor in Minnesota are an anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist doctor (Scott Jensen) and a pro-insurrectionist, anti-democracy conspiracy theorist pillow salesman (Mike Lindell).

If that doesn't give incumbent DFL Gov. Tim Walz a healthy edge 16 months before the 2022 election, nothing will.

Well, except for some economic news that dropped last week.

After being told for months by the Minnesota GOP that Walz was ruining the state's economy with his COVID-19 policies limiting crowd gatherings and restricting businesses, the facts say otherwise.

The state's economy continues to chug forward, with an unemployment rate of about 4% (less than half of where it sat one year ago) and May state tax collections 119% above what economists expected.

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State revenue in fiscal year 2021 is $2.2 billion higher than expected.

Minnesota's economy is fundamentally strong — and growing back as the 15-month pandemic continues to wind down.

All of which is bad news for the state's Republican Party, which saw COVID-19 not as a threat to the health and well-being of Minnesotans, but as a political opportunity to dent Walz's popularity.

State GOP chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan accused Walz of "killing the economy" in December 2020.

Republicans have accused the governor of driving businesses out of business or pushing them to the Dakotas. No doubt some business owners, and employees, suffered. The pandemic wasn't easy for many.

But did Walz and his leadership crush the economy, kill jobs and send scads of businesses scurrying to Sioux Falls? No.

Minnesota's economy, by and large, is emerging from the pandemic in good shape.

This must be profoundly disappointing to the state's Republicans, who'd hoped they could turn people's misfortune into political gain. Instead, according to recent polls, a majority of residents approve of the way Walz handled the pandemic.

Republicans are running out of ways to campaign against Walz.

They labeled him a tyrant, an out-of-control emperor, an incompetent putz, an ineffectual radical. Nothing's stuck because Walz's leadership through the pandemic has been largely steady. There've been missteps, but whatever the GOP has thrown at the governor has largely proved untrue or so clearly politically motivated that few took it seriously.

This being politics and this being a Minnesota Republican Party that hasn't won a statewide race since 2006 and continues to worship Donald Trump — the state GOP refuses to refute the former president's Big Lie about the 2020 election being stolen — the attacks on Walz will continue.

It's likely as 2022 gets closer, they'll get more desperate and nasty. Let's take a wild stab and predict race will be front and center in the GOP's effort to beat Walz and other Democrats in the next election.

It is probably inevitable since the narrative about Minnesota's economy crumbling because of Walz's COVID-19 policies has itself crumbled to dust.

That the economy is solid is bad news for the MNGOP, even if it's good news for Minnesota.

Readers can reach columnist Mike McFeely at mmcfeely@forumcomm.com