A nurse from Prior Lake and a former respiratory therapist from Stillwater who rallied against COVID-19 mandates. A business owner sentenced to 90 days in jail because she wouldn't shut down her bar during pandemic-related closings. An Army veteran from Browerville who believes the false claims that voter fraud elected Joe Biden in 2020.

They're among a wave of enthusiastic conservative activists who have filed to run for Minnesota legislative seats this fall, leading to an inordinate number of Republican intraparty battles on the Aug. 9 primary ballot.

In many cases, the activists have managed to grab party endorsements from incumbent lawmakers. If they are successful in the primary and general election in November it could help shift the power center in St. Paul further to the right.

"I don't know if the Republicans seem defeated or have a defeatist attitude," said Bret Bussman, the Army veteran challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Paul Utke for his central Minnesota seat. "It just seems seems like the conservative Minnesota that I grew up in is not there any more, and I hope we can take it back."

Bussman's personal top issue is election security; other insurgent Republican candidates have built their credentials with the base by opposing mask and vaccine mandates. But those campaigns could muddle a push by some GOP strategists to focus messaging against Democrats this November exclusively on rising prices, crime and more parental control in classrooms as they attempt to take back full control of the Legislature.

"They call themselves Republicans and they only go against good, solid Republicans, as far as I'm concerned," said Utke, a two-term senator from Park Rapids who is seeking re-election in the newly drawn Senate District 5. "We should be spending our energy to defeat the other side — politics is that type of a game. The majorities mean a lot and we should be on the same team."

New faces, new rifts

There are more than two dozen Republican primaries in state House or Senate races across Minnesota on Aug. 9. Some attribute the larger-than-usual number of primaries to the reshuffling caused by redistricting, the once-a-decade process of redrawing the state's political boundaries following the U.S. Census count.

First-term Republican Sen. Gene Dornink of Brownsdale, who secured his party's endorsement for a second term, is being challenged by Lisa Hanson, an Albert Lea bar and restaurant owner who publicly defied Gov. Tim Walz's shutdown order. Republican Rep. Erik Mortensen of Shakopee is facing off against former GOP legislator Bob Loonan; neither of them was endorsed.

Republicans face more legislative primary races than DFLers, partly because of national headwinds facing Democrats and partly due to an energized GOP base.

"I've gotten very positive responses at the door from the Republican Party voters," said Tina Riehle, a Stillwater school board member running for the new House District 33B. "I think there's a little burst of energy coming out here. A lot of voters are, frankly, angry."

That energy has opened the door to groups like Action 4 Liberty, a conservative organization with a libertarian bent that opposed mask mandates and executive orders that shuttered businesses and classrooms for a time during the pandemic.

Riehle, a member of the school board for the past four years, opposed school closures and mask mandates in Stillwater, and one of her top issues this cycle is more parental control in classrooms. But she's facing off in a primary against Mark Bishofsky, a former respiratory therapist backed by Action 4 Liberty who founded Stop the Mandate for small businesses shut down during the pandemic. He was handily endorsed over Riehle by local activists.

"The liberty lovers that make up Action 4 Liberty are sick and tired of being the kicked dog and they will go to the mat to protect [and] restore their liberties, and they are not going away," said Bishofsky, adding that those who cross the group will have an "enormous political problem on their hands."

Nevertheless, a number of GOP candidates who lost the party's endorsement are moving on to the primary, arguing that more people should have a say in who represents their party on the November ballot. The political arm of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce is stepping in to endorse and campaign on behalf of some of those candidates.

They include three-term Republican Sen. Eric Pratt of Prior Lake, who lost his endorsement to political newcomer Natalie Barnes. Pratt is touting the work he did at the State Capitol on tax cuts, including an effort to replenish a state unemployment insurance trust fund. Next year, he wants to pass nearly $4 billion in tax cuts left on the table this session.

"We're talking about eliminating state taxes on Social Security and wanting to get permanent tax relief for families struggling to pay for gas and groceries," Pratt said. "We have a lot of families in this community and they're feeling the pinch."

Some Republican incumbents are being attacked as RINOs (Republican in Name Only) and part of the "swamp" in St. Paul. Barnes supports term limits and said her opponent has grown the size of government.

"Some of the biggest things on the minds of voters we are talking to is getting rid of career politicians that are failing on the issues and refuse to fight for us in St. Paul," said Barnes, who has worked as a nurse for nearly 30 years and is supported by Action 4 Liberty.

In the southeast metro suburbs, Action 4 Liberty-backed candidate Tom Dippel, who did not return a request for comment, was endorsed over three-term state Rep. Tony Jurgens, R-Cottage Grove, to run in the newly drawn Senate District 41.

Jurgens said he's not focusing on his opponent in his primary campaign, sticking instead to issues such as prices at the pump, inflation and rising crime. The party is fired up, he said, and he's not surprised there are more GOP primaries this cycle.

"There are a lot of new faces this year, which is a good thing," Jurgens said. "There are more people getting energized and more people getting involved. A lot more Republicans are part of the process this year."