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Anti-immigration gubernatorial candidate finds support at Republican caucuses

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Phillip Parrish
Phillip Parrish answers a question during a forum with Republican candidates campaigning for the U.S. Senate Tuesday, Apr. 1, 2014.
Jennifer Simonson for MPR News 2014

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson trounced the competition in a Republican Party non-binding straw poll Tuesday night. The rest of the party's pack for governor was clustered in Johnson's shadow.

That includes Naval Reserve Officer Phillip Parrish, whose 12 percent showing would be a blip if not for this: Parrish is spending much less than the other candidates in the race.

His campaign raised and spent only a few thousand dollars in the lead-up to caucuses, a fraction of what the bigger name contenders did.  

Parrish said he believes his caucus night performance has everything to do with concerns he's raised around Islam and his call for a crackdown on immigration — legal or otherwise.

"The current situation of our immigration and refugee resettlement programs is nothing less than human trafficking, state-sponsored human trafficking," he said.

Parrish said the rest of the pack is skirting the topics and voters rewarded him for taking them head on.

There is uneasiness in segments of the Republican Party about setting a tone that the GOP is bigoted. Some party leaders have cringed amid the discussion or distanced themselves from party platform resolutions seen as outwardly hostile to immigrants or Muslims.

But others, like Jeff Johnson, have attempted to straddle the divide. In an MPR News debate last week, he stood up for Muslim people he knows whom he called wonderful Americans, but he added that there are Muslims who want to replace the Constitution with Sharia law.

Attendants get room assignment for the GOP Caucus
Eden Prairie residents who turned out to caucus for the GOP get their room assignments before the start inside of Eden Prairie High School in Eden Prairie, Minn. on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"To deny the threat exists at all is pretty naive," he said. "And the response I got for saying that, I think, is part of the problem we have in society right now, where we can't discuss these difficult issues. The response becomes 'you're horrible, you're hateful, you're racist.'"

The discussions could linger through his state party's convention.

DFL caucus night winner Tim Walz is bracing for an onslaught of anti-immigration campaigning by Republicans. The veteran congressman said President Trump is using his megaphone on the issue to stoke the GOP base.

"I'm sure there are some who are going to capitalize on that national mood," Walz said. "I would make the case to them that it's about nine lifetimes until November, and overall Minnesotans understand our immigrant history. They understand you can strike a balance between border security, screening and being welcoming to folks coming in."

Mohamud Noor attended a DFL caucus in a Minneapolis neighborhood that is home to many Muslim immigrants. He's bothered by the talk from the other side and says it will motivate DFL voters who want inclusiveness.

"If you are not going to reach out to us, if you're going to leave us in the dust, we will vote against that individual," he said. "We are sending a message. We are going to be collective. We will stand against injustice. We will stand against bigotry."

MPR News reporters Matt Sepic and Mark Steil contributed to this story.