WASHINGTON – When they go to the polls on Aug. 9, most voters in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District may be handed one of the more confusing ballots they’ll ever be asked to fill out.
Most will receive a ballot that gives voters – on its second page – a choice between Republican Brad Finstad and Democrat Jeff Ettinger to fill the remaining months of the term of former Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who died in February. Voters will also be asked to select among several candidates to be their party’s pick to run in November’s general election, which will decide who will represent the district in the next Congress, which is sworn in in early January.
Ettinger, James Rainwater and George Kalberer are the Democratic picks and Finstad and Munson are the Republican choices. Also on the ballot are a couple of candidates from two marijuana legalization parties in the state.
The 1st District stretches across southern Minnesota along the border with Iowa and includes Rochester, Austin and Mankato. But some voters who live in the part of the district that has been removed by redistricting this year will only be offered a chance to vote for the special election. And those who live in areas added to the district – Goodhue and Wabasha counties – by the boundary changes will only be able to vote in the primary.
But wait. That’s not the end of the confusion.
Munson, who narrowly lost in May’s primary for the special election to Finstad, wants his former GOP rival to win the special election and plans to vote for him to try to keep the seat in Republican hands. But Munson does not think Finstad should hold the seat more than the four months or so left of Hagedorn’s term.
Munson, 46, is a state representative who lives on a farm in Lake Crystal. He is running to the right of Finstad and would welcome a Trump endorsement. He also says had he served in this Congress, he would not have certified President Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral win. Finstad has said he would have voted to certify Biden’s win.
“We are aligned with supporters of Trump,” Munson said.
Munson has been sharply criticized by the Minnesota Republican Party for continuing to challenge Finstad. Munson maintains the special election and the primary for the general election are “two separate elections,” in two slightly differently configured districts. He also said that while he conceded to Finstad in the special election, he never said he wouldn’t try to run for Congress again.
Finstad campaign spokesman David Fitzsimmons said the candidate is focused on defeating Ettinger, not Munson.
Meanwhile Finstad, 46, who could not be interviewed for this story, sent an email instead that said, in part, “Americans are experiencing the sticker shock of the liberal policies pushed by Biden and Pelosi, including record price hikes for gas, food, and basic necessities.”
“Bringing down inflation and improving our economy will be my number one priority in Congress,” Finstad’s email said.
Unlike Finstad, who blames this year’s uptick on inflation on the policies of Biden and congressional Democrats, Munson said both parties are to blame – Republicans for cutting taxes and Democrats for what he says is too much government spending.
He’s running stealth campaign, promoting himself to his supporters and those who backed other GOP candidates in May’s primary for the special election through emails and social media.
But Ettinger’s campaign has a much higher profile. It is currently running an ad called “Robots” that is aimed at winning over independent voters and disaffected Republicans.
“The last thing we need is another career politician that’s more interested in blindly following their party than in working to get results for Southern Minnesota,” Ettinger says in the ad.
He also says it’s time for congressional leaders in both parties – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Rep. Kevin McCarthy R-CA), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) “to step aside and make room for new leaders who are committed to getting things done rather than playing political games in Washington.”
Ettinger, a former Hormel executive who lives in Austin and has put at least $400,000 of his own money in the race and has loaned his campaign another $500,000, is running in a district considered by political analysts to be safely Republican. But the district has been represented by Democrats before, most recently by Tim Walz, before he successfully ran for governor.
“I absolutely think this is a purple district,” Ettinger said.
Having supported Republican in the past, Ettinger now embraces the Democratic Party.
“To me, Trump was the dividing line,” he said.
But Ettinger, 63, is a very moderate Democrat. He said that if elected, he plans to join the “Problem Solvers Caucus,” a bipartisan group of centrists. And he says he does not need national Democrats to help him campaign.
“As far as people who are not from Minnesota, I’m not in favor of that,” he said.
He also said he would work to make community college education more affordable and vote to codify Roe v. Wade if elected. Finstad and Munson both support the Supreme Court’s overturn of that historic decision.
“Congress has a 20 percent approval rating; it’s broken,” Ettinger said. “Finstad is not in a position to be a change agent. I think I have a much more encompassing approach.”
Even if he loses the special election on Aug. 9, Ettinger said he’s confident he’ll win the Democratic primary for the general election and continue to fight for the seat – and continue to put his own money into the race if needed.