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Small but mighty showing for anti-establishment GOP candidates in Minnesota primary

The anti-establishment wing scored victories in places like Little Falls, Stillwater, Northfield and Red Wing.

Rep. Tim Miller, Rep. Steve Drazkowski, Rep. Jeremy Munson and Rep. Cal Bahr
Members of the New Republican Caucus from 2019: Rep. Tim Miller, Rep. Steve Drazkowski, Rep. Jeremy Munson and Rep. Cal Bahr. Drazkowski and Munson backed many anti-establishment wing candidates. Drazkowski and Bahr are running for the Senate.

Three conservative Republican Senate candidates and a handful of House candidates beat out their more centrist GOP rivals on Tuesday in a primary in which the anti-establishment wing of the party looked to make a mark.

That anti-establishment wing — often backed by the far-right Action 4 Liberty or libertarian-leaning firebrands like Reps. Steve Drazkowski and Jeremy Munson — scored victories in places like Little Falls, Stillwater, Northfield and Red Wing.

The insurgent wing of the party mostly won in safely conservative areas and may not play a role in Republican chances of retaining control of the Minnesota Senate and flipping the DFL-led House. But the results are likely to shift the ideological center of the Republican Senate further right and impact the House nonetheless.

“We are talking about highly partisan, highly combustible political candidates coming into the institution of the Minnesota Senate,” said Michael Brodkorb, a political activist who is critical of that faction of the GOP.

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Senate incumbents survive, but anti-establishment gets wins

Despite wins by anti-establishment candidates in open districts, seven Republican Minnesota Senators held off primary challengers from their political right on Tuesday. That included Sen. Gene Dornink of Brownsdale in southern Minnesota, Sen. Mark Johnson of East Grand Forks in northwestern Minnesota and Sen. Eric Pratt of Prior Lake in the Twin Cities suburbs.

Pratt and Sen. Paul Utke of Park Rapids had even lost Republican endorsements.

But all coasted to victory, winning in most cases by huge margins. The closest race was Pratt’s in Senate District 54, where the legislator beat nurse and endorsed Republican Natalie Barnes by nearly 7.5 points.

Political groups affiliated with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership had intervened in many of the primaries to aid the sitting lawmakers.

More traditional Republicans also won in a handful of other Senate races, including the Moorhead-area Senate District 4, where former Moorhead councilman Dan Bohmer easily beat election-denying Edwin Hahn. State Rep. Jordan Rasmusson, a Republican from Fergus Falls who introduced a paid family leave bill at the Legislature this year and is in the more centrist wing of his party, narrowly beat Nathan Miller of Battle Lake, whose website decries “weak Republicans” and said his personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic was a gun, not a mask. 

Elsewhere, however, the business groups and more traditional Republicans lost to anti-establishment candidates.

In Senate District 10, which includes Little Falls, Nathan Wesenberg beat two opponents, including former lawmaker Jim Newberger. Wesenberg is a wildlife biologist supported by Action 4 Liberty. He favors term limits and has pledged to vote against “omnibus” bills he views as unconstitutional. Those omnibus bills roll many pieces of legislation into one at the Capitol and are often used to pass budget deals at the end of session. But people from both parties, including Munson and Drazkowski, criticize them as untransparent and unethical.

In the east metro, Republican-endorsed Tom Dippel crushed state Rep. Tony Jurgens in Senate District 41. Dippel promotes endorsements from Munson and Drazwkoski, as well as the bombastic former GOP candidate Mike Murphy.

And, lastly, Senate District 58 candidate Bill Lieske easily beat Jake Cordes in a district that includes Northfield. Lieske’s website says he will fight the “political establishment” and sponsor legislation to set term limits.

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House results

In the House, Republican leaders and their allies lost several key races. That includes the Stillwater-area House District 33B where endorsed GOP candidate Mark Bishofsky defeated Tina Riehle. Riehle had been endorsed by Sen. Karin Housley, the Minnesota Chamber, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and more.

A political group with ties to the House Republican Caucus spent money trying to defeat Bishofsky, who has been backed by Action 4 Liberty and led an organization called Stop the Mandate MN that led rallies against COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Bishofsky also quit his job as a respiratory therapist to protest a vaccine mandate.

In the Red Wing area House District 20A, the Drazkowski-backed Pam Altendorf narrowly beat Jesse Johnson, who was boosted by funds associated with the Business Partnership and the Chamber.

The far-right Erik Mortensen of Shakopee — who was ousted from the New House Republican Caucus led by Munson and Drazkowski and has drawn the ire of just about every Republican at the Legislature — beat Bob Loonan in their third consecutive primary matchup. Loonan previously was a lawmaker. On Election Day, Mortensen posted on Twitter that he was drinking from a mug saying: “RINO tears,” which is an acronym for Republicans in Name Only.

What it all means

Brodkorb said a couple anti-establishment candidates could lose in districts he believes Republicans would otherwise carry. But he said that won’t likely harm GOP efforts to hold the Senate and retake the House.

The bigger impact will be when the Legislature convenes next year. The primary elections were not the extent of the political shift in the Republican-led Senate.

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Drazkowski and Rep. Cal Bahr, two members of the breakaway New House Republican Caucus known for criticizing GOP leadership, are running for the Senate. They’re expected to win in November, along with Reps. Eric Lucero, Steve Green and Glenn Gruenhagen, who are among the farthest-right House Republicans. (Only Bahr had a primary, which he won easily.)

Republicans currently hold 34 of the chamber’s 67 seats – but they hold a five-seat advantage over the DFL when counting two independents in northeast Minnesota who caucus with the GOP.

Brodkorb said the anti-establishment lawmakers in the Senate will have greater influence over the smaller chamber than the New House Republicans did, especially because the GOP has been in the House minority. He said a Senate leader might have a hard time negotiating a deal with a DFL-led House or Gov. Tim Walz since those GOP politicians are much more hard-line in their views on things like opposing government spending.

And if Republicans hold full control of government, the Senators hostile to House GOP leader Kurt Daudt could clash with him.

“Many of them have a legislative history of doing whatever they can to disrupt the legislative process, working outside the normal caucus process, and they wear that as a badge of honor,” Brodkorb said. “The leader is going to have a lot of work to keep that caucus corralled and on the same level and on the same plane.”

Typically, the anti-establishment candidates bash compromise with the DFL and paint Republican leaders as corrupted by lobbyist influence.

Munson — who lost a congressional primary in southern Minnesota on Tuesday and is not returning to the Legislature — issued a warning on Twitter to his ideological friends. “We will continue to support you during the difficult days ahead, where ‘Leadership’ will work you over and apply peer pressure in an attempt to drag you into the St Paul Swamp,” Munson said. “Be Strong! Resist the temptation!”

Drazkowski said Wednesday he counts Dippel, Wesenberg and Lieske as ideological allies. But he downplayed the notion that their victories, and his own, would spark “seismic activity.” He said he would support Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller of Winona, though he said Miller will have to “adapt” to lead a more conservative caucus. He previously told MinnPost the chamber was led by a majority of “very moderate Republicans.”

“The center of gravity or the ideological graphic center, if you will, is going to be further to the right than it is in the current Legislature,” Drazkowski said.

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He also hedged his stance on omnibus bills, which his House caucus has railed against in the past. Drazkowski said he won’t vote against an omnibus bill just “because it’s an omnibus bill.” It will depend on what’s in the legislation he said. And while he said effort around reforming the legislative process to have fewer omnibus bills is growing, he noted he’s voted for many omnibus bills in the past. A majority caucus tends to use them to govern because it’s “expeditious to do so,” he said.

“If there’s an omnibus tax cut bill I’m voting for it,” he said.