Action 4 Liberty candidates challenging Republicans across the state

Right-wing group says they’re taking on ‘weak and feckless Republicans’

By: - February 25, 2022 6:00 am

State Rep. Joe McDonald defends his record to a constituent asking questions about his Action 4 Liberty challenger, Joe Crawford, at the Wright County GOP convention in Buffalo on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022.

Republicans are poised to take full control of the Minnesota Legislature in the November election, but the shape of the GOP House and Senate caucuses — conservative or very conservative — has yet to be sorted out. 

Action 4 Liberty, a perennial libertarian-ish group on the fringes of the GOP, is trying to inject its pugilist brand of politics into next year’s Legislature. They’re seizing a moment when the Republican grassroots is furious, convinced that Gov. Tim Walz is a wannabe tyrant and — despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — that the 2020 election was stolen. 

Their first target: Fellow Republicans. 

“Action 4 Liberty supporters are pretty fed up with weak and feckless Republicans,” said Jake Duesenberg, executive director of the group and longtime thorn in the side of conventional Republicans.

Rep. Joe McDonald, R-Delano, is one of their targets, facing Action 4 Liberty activist Joe Crawford in a GOP convention Monday in Montrose. 

McDonald is incensed. 

 “They’re frauds,” he told a constituent at a recent GOP meeting. 

“Instead of fighting against the Democrats and going to districts that we know we could win — a couple hundred votes can win a district so we can get the majority in the House — he goes against us good Republicans,” McDonald said, referring to Duesenberg. “It’s really sad.”

Joe Crawford is one of at least eight people affiliated with the right-wing group who are running for governor or the Legislature, many of them challenging Republicans.

Which means McDonald, who has served 11 years as a reliably conservative lawmaker, has to prove he’s been tough enough on the governor. He notes that he voted 19 times to end Walz’s emergency pandemic powers, missing just one vote because he was sick.

The only lawmaker Action 4 Liberty seems to approve of is Rep. Erik Mortensen, R-Shakopee, who has spent much of his first term decrying vaccines and using stunts to get media attention, which has made him a pariah even among fellow GOP lawmakers. McDonald called him “a petulant child.”

Mortensen did not respond to a request for comment.

McDonald was also critical of Duesenberg, the president of Action 4 Liberty, saying, “They wanna build their own little caucus. I wouldn’t want anyone in Wright County that acts like Mortensen. I would be embarrassed to have some (legislator) represent us from Wright County and act like that Mortensen, so I will fight like heck to make sure any Action 4 Liberty person does not win this seat.”

Duesenberg would not say how many Action 4 Liberty supporters are running for office, instead emailing a statement: “I’m aware that many Action 4 Liberty supporters have taken upon themselves to run for office because legislators refuse to listen to them. I think this is great news.”

Politicos from both parties say the following candidates seem to be aligned with Action 4 Liberty:

  • Lisa Hanson, who is running in the new Senate District 23 seat, challenging Republican Sen. Gene Dornink. Hanson is the owner of an Albert Lea bistro. She went to jail for ignoring pandemic restrictions and refusing to shut down her place. Action 4 Liberty called her “heroic Lisa Hanson” in a post about her run.
  • Rachel Davis says she’s challenging House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt and opposes lockdowns and wants “controversial Dominion-type (voting) machines” removed. (Six Minnesota counties use Dominion equipment, and Trump won all but one of those counties in 2020. Dominion has filed billion-dollar defamation lawsuits against a bevy of people who spread conspiracy theories about their voting machines, including Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and Newsmax.)
  • Teresa Dvorak, who is running for the House, wrote on Facebook that she wants to stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” with Mortensen.
  • Nathan Wesenberg is running for the Senate in central Minnesota’s District 10. He’s described by Action 4 Liberty as “a well-organized conservative, outsider candidate” who had many conservative activists show up in Morrison County on caucus night to support him as delegates. 
  • Neil Shah, a North Oaks dermatologist who is running as a Republican for governor, has been celebrated by Action 4 Liberty for his debate skills, saying he “dominates.”  
  • Carl Mastenbrook, who first hinted at a run for the House in District 28a in southeast Minnesota, linked to an Action 4 Liberty post taking shots at Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona.*
  • Tom Dippel of Cottage Grove, who is running for the Senate, has donated to Mortensen.
  • Bret Bussman of Browerville is running for the Senate in District 5 in central Minnesota, challenging Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids.

Political neophytes

Action 4 Liberty has trained people across the state, attempting to demystify caucuses, conventions and elections.

McDonald and Rep. Nolan West, R-Blaine, were forcibly removed from Action 4 Liberty caucus trainings, which infuriated the lawmakers — as well as Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, regarded as one of the staunchest conservatives in the House, announcing on Twitter last year she would stop ordering from a restaurant due to its vaccine requirement. 

DFL party chair Ken Martin said the growth of Action 4 Liberty is the natural result of the Republican Party’s refusal to stand up to “conspiracy theorists, liars and extremists within their ranks.” 

Bussman — who works for Lockheed Martin training soldiers and cadets on how to operate military vehicles — said he first heard about Action 4 Liberty during a Young Americans for Liberty seminar for people thinking about running for office.

“There’s a lot of patriots out there that want to get involved and they should,” he said. “We need to reclaim our state.”

He has since volunteered for the group, working a booth at the State Fair, and Action 4 Liberty held a training session in his area, Browerville, complete with a mock caucus.

He said he’s running on election integrity, school vouchers, a balanced budget amendment and tax relief for seniors. (Minnesota already requires a balanced budget, as do most states.)

“If we don’t have fair elections, we don’t have a republic,” Bussman said.

State dismissed Dems’ complaint

Last year, the state DFL Party lodged a complaint with the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board about Action 4 Liberty.

The DFL alleged that they accepted contributions and made expenditures that weren’t reported, and that it was unclear how Action 4 Liberty is related to the Action 4 Liberty PAC. The latter, unlike the former, is allowed to engage in explicit support of candidates. Duesenberg serves as chair for the PAC and president of the group.

Action 4 Liberty is a nonprofit 501(c)(4), a tax-exempt group whose major purpose cannot be to influence the nomination or election of candidates. Democrats noted the group’s website says they recruit “pro-liberty” candidates for the Legislature and publish legislative scorecards ranking lawmakers, and the group has contributed to candidates and spent money on phone banking.

Action 4 Liberty responded that it’s an issue-based advocacy association, and that its donations are used to get its message out to the public.

The state campaign finance board dismissed three complaints against Action 4 Liberty, in part because the group didn’t explicitly urge people to vote for or against people.

McDonald said he could understand being hit from the right if he really was a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and not doing “the work that needs to be done.” But it seems like Action 4 Liberty doesn’t like many Republicans, he said, and has criticized even U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer.

“Nobody’s good enough for this group,” he said. 

*Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Rep. Gene Pelowski’s political party.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.