Jeff Johnson, a leading Republican candidate for governor, was pressed in a podcast interview this week to defend GOP lawmakers who have warned of Muslim-Americans "infiltrating" the upcoming precinct caucuses.

Reps. Cindy Pugh and Kathy Lohmer were criticized by fellow Republicans and civic groups after they claimed there is a plan to "mobilize Muslims to infiltrate our Republican caucuses on Feb. 6."

Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner, applauded Pugh on a conservative podcast Wednesday: "Putting Republicans on notice," he said, is "a good thing."

"I think [Pugh] raises very legitimate issues. I think there's a huge cultural issue we're talking about here. Not just showing up at caucus. But there are some here who are trying to change what America is. And we can't allow that," he said on the "Living Free" podcast hosted by Jack Rogers and Jake Duesenberg.

Johnson, who was the Republican nominee for governor in 2014, elaborated to the Star Tribune Wednesday.

"There are people in this state and country who seek to replace the Constitution with sharia," he said. "It's not most Muslims, but to deny that this threat exists is pretty naive."

As for infiltration of the caucus, Johnson said, "It's America and we can't turn people away because they're of a different religion." He said anyone who caucuses with the Republicans should have Republican values.

Asked about the Republican lawmakers' rhetoric, Johnson said, "I can't speak to where their information came from, and I'm not going to get into criticizing legislators when I don't know the basis of what they had to say."

In their Facebook post, Pugh and Lohmer implied that Muslim-Americans at a mosque caucus training were not actually Americans and have a hidden agenda to enact their own law: "I hope caucus night will be packed by Americans who want to keep American Law and only American Law," they wrote.

The political parties, civic groups and religious groups all conduct caucus training sessions to help Minnesotans with the sometimes confusing process of selecting party leaders and hashing out a party platform at the biennial precinct caucuses, where the parties will begin the process of endorsing candidates for governor.

Johnson was asked during the podcast whether he is coming late to this issue, unlike one of his Republican competitors, Phillip Parrish.

"[Parrish] saw the threat of this coming before other people, and I give him great credit for that. I have been talking about it for the last few years because it's become quite obvious there's a threat there," Johnson said.

Johnson clarified that he meant the threat of Islamic terrorism and not the threat of sharia, which he said should not be ignored but is not an "existential threat" to the United States.

Parrish recently replied to a Muslim woman who asked to have a conversation with him about her Muslim faith. His response read in part, "I separate Islam from the word faith because faith takes belief and Islam requires only submission." He continued: "I will not participate in any faith dialogue because Islam is ultimately not a faith."

Johnson said he was unfamiliar with Parrish's remarks.

Johnson said he talked to a Muslim supporter last week about how to improve Muslim voter outreach and will have more conversations with Muslim-Americans who supported his 2014 campaign, he said.

Ken Martin, the chairman of the DFL Party, attacked Johnson for not condemning the Republican lawmakers: "The fact that the leading Republican gubernatorial candidate would not only fail to denounce these bigoted comments, but go so far as to defend them as a 'good thing' is deeply troubling," he said in a statement.