Alongside a generally lowkey set of state primary elections, voters in southern Minnesota chose last week to send Republican Brad Finstad, a former State Legislator and USDA official, to Congress to fill the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn’s shoes through 2022.
The 1st Congressional District result was a significant victory for Republicans, who only need a net gain of five seats in the House and one in the Senate to regain control of Congress and halt President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.
Stretching along the full length of Minnesota’s border with Iowa, the 1st Congressional District includes blue-leaning Rochester and Mankato. However, the wide swath of rural townships and smaller communities in between have become increasingly Republican.
Finstad’s win over DFL candidate Jeff Ettinger was widely anticipated, due to both the relatively favorable climate for Republicans and the strong support the district showed for former President Donald Trump, who carried it by about 15 points in the 2016 election and 10 points in 2020.
Yet, while Trump’s strong support in small town and rural Minnesota ensured him comfortable victories in the district, recent races for Congress have been closer. In fact, it saw two of the closest races for Congress in the nation in 2016 and 2018.
In 2020, Hagedorn was re-elected by a larger margin, but both he and DFL challenger Dan Feehan saw their vote shares decline as Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis candidate Bill Rood received more than 20,000 votes.
Despite the presence of two pro-marijuana candidates in the special election, Finstad was able to win a narrow majority. However, his overall margin of 4 percentage points was barely better than Hagedorn’s showing in 2020 and significantly worse than Trump’s.
Carleton College Political Science professor Steven Schier noted that Ettinger’s performance was boosted by a strong showing in the district’s largest city. He said that Olmsted County, anchored by Rochester, contributed about 30% of the District’s votes in the special election, compared to about 25% in an average election.
Traditionally, a fortification of centrist Republicanism, Rochester has shifted significantly to the left as of late. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Democrat to carry Olmsted County since 1964, and eight years later, it was the only county in the district to choose Hillary Clinton over Trump.
Olmsted County voters delivered big for Ettinger, giving him nearly 58% of the vote. That’s significantly higher than the 54% President Biden and DFL Congressional candidate Dan Feehan received in 2020, and just 1% lower than Amy Klobuchar’s showing in her landslide 2018 re-election.
The former Hormel CEO also performed well in the district’s college towns, carrying Blue Earth County (Mankato) and Winona County by comfortable margins. And his personal popularity in his hometown of Austin was evident, as he took 56% of the vote in Mower County, which Trump carried twice.
While disappointed with the narrow loss, Ettinger said that his campaign outperformed most polls and predictions. Though well known in the state’s business community, Ettinger is a novice political candidate and certainly a newcomer to the DFL.
Running as a centrist, pragmatic Democrat, Ettinger has worked hard to boost his profile with advertising and campaign stops across the district. With turnout for November’s election likely to be three to four times as high, and the election held under slightly different boundaries, he believes he can build on his special election result.
“When we started the second phase of this campaign, our polling showed that only 40% of the voters had heard of me,” he said. “I’ve worked hard to reach out to voters and emphasize my less partisan and more moderate approach.
Finstad, a former USDA official who helps to operate his family farm near New Ulm, was still able to carry the day the same way Trump did. From Luverne to La Crescent, he matched and in some cases exceeded the former President’s margins in small towns and rural areas.
Yet, while sweeping margins in rural areas were enough to send Finstad to Washington, Republicans will need more than that if they want to ride their “red wave” into control of Minnesota’s Legislature and victories for statewide offices.
In one local legislative race, GOP primary voters in the Northfield area backed their endorsed candidate for state Senate in a new, Republican-leaning district composed of areas currently represented by senators Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, and Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville.
Dr. Bill Lieske, a Lonsdale Chiropractor, easily dispatched his rival Jake Cordes, a former member of the Farmington Area School Board. A staunch conservative, Lieske said his small government agenda has resonated with voters.
“A lot of people really want to see a change,” he said.