After an election that delivered a major power shift, yet reflected a country as deeply, narrowly and bitterly polarized as ever, southern Minnesota’s two members of Congress have been sent back to serve in Washington for two more years.
Reps. Brad Finstad, R-New Ulm, and Angie Craig, DFL-Prior Lake, both won re-election by increased margins earlier this month. Millions were spent by both Democrats and Republicans in both seats, which have produced a series of tight results in recent years.
Finstad’s and Craig’s victories took place as predictions of a sweeping “red wave” wiping aside Democratic incumbents fizzled. In fact, Minnesota Republicans woke up the morning after the election to find not GOP victories, but a state government fully under DFL control.
With one Republican and one Democrat covering the whole of southern Minnesota at the United States House of Representatives, both are talking compromise and touting agendas they believe will make an impact locally.
Nationally, the GOP won enough seats to secure a narrow majority in the House of Representatives, ending two years of single-party Democratic control in Washington. It did so despite failing to unseat Craig, whose race was seen as a top battleground by both parties.
With a mix of suburban, exurban and rural voters, Craig’s 2nd Congressional District provides a true cross-section of Minnesota and the nation. It narrowly voted for Donald Trump in 2016, then shifted to support Joe Biden in 2020.
With President Biden’s approval ratings well under water, inflation and high gas prices punishing families in the pocketbook, and concerns about violent crime rising, especially in metro areas like the Twin Cities, an incumbent like Craig was seen as highly vulnerable.
Well aware that the race would be close, Craig sought to portray herself as a political moderate. She stressed her bipartisan credentials and won the support of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, which has mostly supported Republican candidates in recent years.
Public backlash to the Dobbs v. Jackson Whole Woman’s Health Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v Wade also appeared to help Craig and other DFL candidates, boosting Democratic turnout and pulling some wavering voters into the DFL fold.
Craig is strongly pro-choice, and she cited the issue as central to her victory. She said the issue was particularly galvanizing for young voters in places like Northfield, a liberal stronghold where she and other DFLers romped to victory by even larger margins than usual.
“This really is a very, very emotional issue for voters in the 2nd District,” she said. “They don’t believe a politician deserves to have any input in this decision.”
Voter distrust of Republicans closely aligned with polarizing former President Donald Trump may have played a role as well. Trump endorsed Minnesota Republicans Kim Crockett for secretary of state and Scott Jensen for governor, and both candidates received roughly the same 45% vote share Trump did in the state two years ago.
In the 2nd District, Republican challenger Tyler Kistner actually saw his vote share decrease slightly compared to 2020, while Craig picked up votes from the declining Legal Marijuana Now Party to win by over 5%. The seat retained its purple status in other races, voting DFL for governor and secretary of state and Republican for attorney general and state auditor.
To the south, Republican incumbent Brad Finstad romped to a double digit victory over DFLer Jeff Ettinger in the 1st Congressional District. Finstad prevailed by a significantly wider margin of victory than he had in August’s special election, which was held following Rep. Jim Hagedorn’s passing.
“I’m very humbled and very honored that people in southern Minnesota have given me the opportunity to sit in their seat,” Finstad said. “It doesn’t belong to me, or any politician or party. I’m looking forward to working hard for the folks in southern Minnesota and to meeting as many constituents as I can.”
Finstad’s 1st District stretches across rural southern Minnesota, covering the entire Iowa border from Luverne to La Crescent. It includes blue leaning Rochester as well as the college towns of Winona, Mankato and St. Peter, with a lot of rural farm country in between.
As a farmer himself and a former USDA appointee, Finstad is well at home in the district’s rural parts. They also delivered strongly for former President Trump, enabling him to win the district by about 15 points in 2016 and about 10 points in 2020.
In today’s polarized environment, such margins would seem to be indicative of a strong Republican lean, and Finstad’s results could suggest that things are headed that way. Yet, it’s seen a series of close elections in recent years, with Finstad’s performance the best for a Republican since former Congressman Gil Gutknecht was re-elected in 2004.
Two years after what would be Gutknecht’s final re-election, a political novice named Tim Walz upset the apple cart in what had been a traditionally Republican-leaning district, winning six consecutive terms, even as Democrats lost ground elsewhere.
Yet Walz nearly lost his final re-election bid in 2016 and opted to run for governor instead in 2018. Dan Feehan attempted to hold the district for the DFL, but lost to Hagedorn in 2018 by about 1,300 votes and failed to win a rematch in 2020.
Both Craig and Finstad saw the boundaries to their district redrawn to account for population changes in the 2020 Census. Notably, the special election Finstad won in August was held under the old district boundaries, while November’s elections were held under the new ones.
The changes were minor but affected some local voters, with Goodhue County shifting to the 1st District and Le Sueur County to the 2nd. In Rice County, some voters were shifted from the 1st District to the 2nd, and a smaller number went the opposite direction.
Despite winning her own hard-fought re-election campaign, Craig will move from the majority to the minority for the first time since her election to the House. That would seem to mean a loss of influence, but the Congresswoman is optimistic about the potential for bipartisan cooperation.
With energy prices high, she hopes that one area where bipartisan cooperation can be found, including with Rep. Finstad, is in promoting the use of alternative fuels — including those produced by farmers and co-ops in southern Minnesota.
“I hope that we can work to transition to alternative fuels,” she said. “Both (Rep. Finstad) and I represent family farmers.”
Both Craig and Finstad sit on the House Agriculture Committee, and will thus be expected to have a hand in the writing of the new Farm Bill, a traditionally bipartisan endeavor. Having spent his life in the agriculture industry, Finstad is particularly excited to get to work on this legislation.
“There’s a lot of issues to work out around the Farm Bill,” he said. “I look forward to being part of the process to help write it.”
Throughout the campaign, Finstad focused on his commitment to reducing inflation and energy prices by bolstering U.S. Energy Production. Now that Republicans have control of the U.S. House, Finstad believes that he is in a much better role to advocate for more production.
“We will try to do more America First energy policies,” he said. “Increased energy costs affect each and every one of us, trickling down to the cost of food and shipping goods.”
Finstad also blames the bout of inflation on several bills passed by Congress’s Democratic majority in the last two years, including the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act, which he believes bolstered spending to inflationary levels.
Now, Republicans have not only ended full Democratic control of Washington, but by winning the House, they’ve gained access to the all important “purse strings,” since all spending and tax bills are required to originate in the U.S. House.
“I think, right now, the inflationary times we live in are directly tied to government spending,” he said. “What you’ll see now is the return and restoration of the power of the purse. The committees will be asking some tough things about the spending.”
Among the issues Craig hopes to work on during the upcoming session of Congress is reducing the cost of prescription drugs and increasing access to career and technical education. Craig has called for a cap on the out of pocket cost of insulin at $35 per month.
Craig has also worked particularly hard to connect with voters in the largely rural parts of her district, which she will be representing for the first time, including in Le Sueur and Rice counties. She pledged to work across the aisle to secure universal rural broadband in these areas, saying it is a particularly high priority for her new constituents.
With Democrats retaining the majority in the Senate and Republicans likely to enjoy only a very narrow majority in the House, Craig is optimistic that the potential for bipartisan cooperation will be greater than what might otherwise be expected in such a bitterly divided Washington.
Given the hardline views of some in their caucus, Craig anticipates that Republican leadership might eventually look to negotiate bipartisan deals with some moderate Democrats, delivering a more centrist style of governance that she says many of her constituents are longing for.
“When we were in the majority, we probably had 10 Republicans who were willing to sit down and vote with us,” she said. “I think that Republicans will have to work with us to negotiate bills, but that means they can’t go too far.”