At an April event in Rochester, Jeremy Munson said Republican primary voters in southern Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District should reject candidates who say they are conservative, but who “turn into squish” in Washington, D.C.
The GOP is favored to win the August special election to replace Jim Hagedorn, who died in February. So much so that Munson said Republicans can comfortably pick him, a right-wing fighter, a fiscal hawk, someone in the mold of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky or U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio.
“We don’t need another Mitt Romney or Liz Cheney to go to Washington and grow government,” Munson told a crowd at the local Eagles Club, flanked by several other candidates. “It’s not just the Democrats who are at fault.”
Munson is one of nine GOP candidates running in the May 24 primary. And the controversial state representative from Lake Crystal — who broke from House Republicans to form a small caucus at the Legislature and is known for frustrating GOP leadership — might just be the favorite.
But there’s one thing standing in his way: much of the Republican establishment.
A host of GOP officials have lined up behind former state lawmaker and Trump USDA official Brad Finstad. And Munson is facing intense opposition from many of his fellow Republican legislators, who see him as a loud but irrelevant or unserious troublemaker.
“He’s a huge disappointment,” said state Sen. Julie Rosen, an influential six-term Republican who chairs the Senate’s Finance Committee and shares a district with Munson. “He hasn’t supported any issue that was relevant to the communities that he was supposed to take care of.”
A breakaway caucus
Munson says he was driven to politics by the cost of health insurance while self-employed after the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, was signed into law in 2010. He also wanted more price transparency in health care, which he eventually helped pass a law to address.
In 2017, he was elected 1st District party chair, and then won a House seat in 2018 representing a rural district south of Mankato. At the Capitol in St. Paul, Munson and three other Republicans quickly made waves by splitting from House Republicans, led by Minority Leader Kurt Daudt of Crown, to form a separate caucus.
The “New House Republicans,” aren’t a bloc within the larger 59-member House GOP caucus. The group stands alone and apart from traditional Republicans. While individual legislators can work together, House Republicans don’t coordinate on votes or strategy with New House GOPers or share resources.
The fissure was caused by distaste for Republican leadership as much as ideological differences. Munson said Republican brass limited what staff they could hire before the separation, and he and fellow New Republican Rep. Tim Miller ran unsuccessfully for leadership positions in the House GOP caucus. Miller called the party’s leaders “hostile” to him.
Since the break, the impact of the New House Republicans has been minimal, though that’s largely because the House has a DFL majority. The new caucus often votes the same as House Republicans, though not always: Munson opposes “reinsurance,” a program meant to stabilize the individual and small-group health insurance market favored by most Republicans. He and his cohort also often publicly criticize GOP leadership in the House and Senate for other positions or actions they view as unethical or not conservative enough.
Last year, the New House Republicans pushed through the Legislature a bill to ban sitting legislators from working as lobbyists. It was directed at Daudt, who works for a public affairs based in Virginia but who contends his work doesn’t involve lobbying.
Munson is also known for voting against most spending, especially when it comes in the form of an “omnibus” bill, which rolls many pieces of legislation into one packaged deal. He believes the practice is unconstitutional and even hosts a podcast called “The Omnibus.”
Munson describes himself as a “constitutional conservative” who believes in limited government, which applies to spending, he says. But it also applies to issues of civil liberties or government regulation — beliefs that sometimes lead him to side with Democrats. He backed limits to traffic stops after former Brooklyn Center officer Kim Potter shot and killed Daunte Wright in 2021, for example, and he doesn’t like no-knock search warrants and last year voted in favor of a bill to legalize marijuana.
But Munson has also led the charge on some quixotic bills, such as one that would allow parts of Minnesota to secede and join other states. And in one instance that exasperated Republican leaders, Munson and one New GOP colleague opposed 2019 legislation to ban state funding for art that promotes terrorism, violence, hate crimes and white nationalism because white nationalism was undefined in law, he said, and the state shouldn’t be determining motives of artists.
Munson describes himself as acting on principle, not beholden to special interests that sway Republican and Democratic leadership. “We don’t have to deal with the pressures from the establishment,” Munson said of New House Republicans. “If we were in the majority … we’d be able to direct and change where things are going.”
If elected to Congress, Munson said he would join the House Freedom Caucus, which is known for agitating against its own Republican leadership to push its priorities.
Munson has been backed by the leaders of that caucus: Jordan and Rep. Scott Perry. Political bedfellows Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have endorsed Munson, as well as former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, conservative activist Morton Blackwell and former state GOP chairman Keith Downey.
“Jeremy has a proven record of standing up to establishment pressure and doing what’s right for the People of southern Minnesota,” Perry said in endorsing Munson. Paul said Munson has a “record as a proven liberty warrior.”
Fierce critics among fellow Republicans
Munson has attracted almost no support from elected officials in Minnesota, however. Most legislators in southern Minnesota, including Rosen, have endorsed Finstad, who was state director for rural development under Trump’s USDA. U.S. Reps. Michelle Fischbach and Pete Stauber of Minnesota are also backing Finstad.
Rosen criticized Munson for supporting the marijuana legalization bill and policies opposed by police. The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association has endorsed Finstad.
And Rosen said Munson’s hard line against spending and omnibus bills — including voting against measures to fund basic infrastructure or services — has gone too far, placing his principles over the needs of people. “He talks about the money; as a conservative you still have to spend money and take care of the needs of the state,” Rosen said. “And for me those are children, the disabled and the aging. You can’t constantly vote no no no no, just to make a statement.”
Rosen said she has even turned to other House lawmakers to carry bills important to the district, which she and Munson share, to ensure the legislation is passed. “Because Jeremy Munson’s principles would perhaps be in the way of the Vernon Center wastewater treatment plant, or the Waldorf wastewater treatment plant, or the road improvements in St. James,” Rosen said.
Munson’s frequent accusations that Republicans aren’t conservative enough grates on Rosen and others. They’re trying to accomplish things, Rosen said, while Munson’s ultimate goal is to “shut the state down just to prove he’s right.”
In 2020, the Legislature passed a $1.9 billion package of publicly financed construction projects, known as a bonding bill, with the help of 25 Republican votes in the House, and the measure passed 64-3 in the Republican-led Senate. Munson voted no, though so did many traditional Republicans.
Munson has carried bills for individual infrastructure projects, and he said his advocacy has helped them become law as part of the bonding bill. But he also said won’t vote for a bonding bill with “pork projects” such as museums and convention centers or topics that make it, in his view, an unconstitutional multi-subject omnibus bill.
A television ad from the Super PAC Defending Mainstreet, a group that supports centrist Republicans and backs Finstad, slams Munson for being one of only four lawmakers to vote against a $330 million COVID-19 relief bill in March 2020 that included money for struggling businesses. “We never faced anything like this before, but Munson still said no,” the ad says.
At the time, Munson argued lawmakers and the public didn’t have enough time to scrutinize the bill. He also didn’t like that it handed some spending decisions to the governor and a smaller group of lawmakers.
Rep. Paul Torkelson, a seven-term Republican from Hanska, said if Munson goes to D.C. and acts the same way as he has in Minnesota, he’ll be part of a small caucus that can’t represent the district well. “If we were in the majority and had this situation with a slim majority, it would be impossible to govern,” Torkelson said of the Minnesota House.
Munson contends he’s a serious legislator who has focused on critical concerns like the cost of health care, which is still a priority in his run for Congress. Republicans may get angry with him for actions like livestreaming debates to a large following on social media, he says, but he said he’s only highlighting their votes.
“People didn’t like transparency because a lot of the Republicans will campaign as conservatives and then they go to St. Paul and vote like Democrats,” Munson said. “It’s a team sport but I’m not there to build relationships and build a career. I’m there to enact change.”
The Finstad alternative
Rosen and Torkelson are among those supporting Finstad, a former lawmaker from New Ulm who served three terms in the Minnesota House from 2003 to 2008.
Finstad has pitched himself as a problem solver able to legislate well and achieve conservative goals under a politically divided government. After leaving the Legislature, he farmed and later led the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and the nonprofit Center for Rural Policy and Development. He was appointed to the USDA by Trump in 2017.
Finstad said his endorsements are evidence he can “make more friends than enemies” and deliver results. He questioned whether Munson would vote for something like the farm bill, an often massive piece of legislation Congress takes up roughly every five years, and he criticized Munson for not supporting government funding to help subsidize high-speed internet infrastructure. The two have disagreed on other issues, too: Finstad says he would have voted to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election while Munson says he would have objected.
“For me it’s not just screaming as loud as you can and getting as much media attention as you can,” Finstad said. “When I served in the Legislature I was in the Republican caucus. I was part of the team that helped run the Republican caucus and helped pass a lot of our conservative value legislation into law.”
Munson may be unpopular among elected officials, but there are signs that he may be the favorite among Republican voters in the district. Jennifer Carnahan, former state GOP chair who resigned after a scandal-plagued tenure, has touted internal polling showing her in front.
But Munson led every round of delegating voting at the district GOP convention. Finstad came in second and Carnahan, who has no endorsements of note, came in third. No one had enough votes to secure an endorsement.
Republican state Rep. Eric Lucero — who often aligns ideologically with Munson but hasn’t endorsed him — said Munson is a “phenomenal communicator” with one of the largest social media followings in the Legislature.
Munson’s opponents also treat him as a front-runner, launching attacks against him during the April candidate forum and in other venues.
Munson recently has drawn fire for his ties to operative Cliff Maloney, who was recently charged with raping a woman in 2013. A reporter for Inside Elections said Maloney was assisting Munson in the 1st District campaign, and the Minnesota Reformer reported Munson paid Maloney’s consulting firm.
Munson said he knew Maloney because he led Young Americans for Liberty, which supported Munson’s 2020 state House campaign. “We made phone calls to him when I first started because I don’t know people in Washington, D.C,” Munson said, in the run-up to his congressional campaign.
Munson also said Maloney is part of the firm he hired, but he’s working with another person for the purposes of door knocking and other services. He called the charges “disturbing news” and said Maloney won’t be part of his campaign.
The Munson agenda
Munson’s top issue of the campaign cycle is a bread and butter topic: inflation. He blames tax cuts and spending approved by Republicans and Democrats, and he has opposed a federal aid package for Ukraine supported by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “The Federal Reserve’s monetary policy has driven our economy off a cliff, and we must audit the Fed and take corrective action,” Munson said, answering a recent MinnPost questionnaire. “We must also significantly reduce spending in advance of rising interest rates.”
Munson also promotes what might be the most right-wing platform of any major candidate. He said he will never vote to raise the debt ceiling, and he calls the 2020 election results — including his own state House race — illegitimate because of changes to election procedure done without legislative approval. He unsuccessfully sued to stop the Minnesota results from being certified.
He said abortion should be illegal except for when a mother’s life is at risk, and he would not exempt cases of rape or incest.
Munson wants to jail Anthony Fauci, the face of the federal government’s COVID-19 response under Trump and Biden over controversial virus research in China funded by the National Institutes of Health.
He said farm bills are usually good and important to the district, but wants to separate food benefit programs from agriculture programs. He wouldn’t commit to voting for specific bills yet.
Munson has pushed back against Finstad for being supported by the GOP establishment and by a PAC tied to the Koch brothers that doesn’t endorse candidates who run on “election integrity” issues. A PAC connected to Rand Paul has also critiqued Finstad for a legislative record they view as too liberal.
One key political friend Munson does have in Minnesota outside of the New House GOP is the endorsed Republican candidate for governor, Scott Jensen. The former state senator and family doctor donated to Munson, and Munson appeared on stage with Jensen at the GOP convention in Rochester on Saturday to bolster Jensen’s conservative bona fides.
In an interview, Jensen called Munson effective at the Legislature. Jensen sponsored the health care price transparency bill with Munson and the two have also found common ground in supporting Fauci foe Rand Paul. Jensen stopped short of an endorsement citing his campaign for governor, but said Paul supporting Munson “was pretty darned impactful.”
That endorsement, however, won’t sway Rosen, who said splitting from the Republican caucus put Munson and his three colleagues “into a box.”
“They became irrelevant,” Rosen said. “Which meant (Munson) was irrelevant to the district he serves instead of trying to make something happen.”