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Finstad’s win in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District explained

Did Finstad do better or worse than expected? This MinnPost analysis includes how Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District has voted in the past.

Supporter Ed Cracraft, CD7 Rep. Michelle Fischbach, wife Jackie Finstad, Brad Finstad and former CD3 Rep. Erik Paulsen celebrating on Tuesday night at the Sleepy Eye Event Center.
Supporter Ed Cracraft, CD7 Rep. Michelle Fischbach, wife Jackie Finstad, Brad Finstad and former CD3 Rep. Erik Paulsen celebrating on Tuesday night at the Sleepy Eye Event Center.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

Voters in southern Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District on Tuesday sent Republican Brad Finstad to Congress, picking him over Democrat Jeff Ettinger by roughly 4 percentage points.

Jeff Ettinger
Ettinger for Congress
Jeff Ettinger
So, why are some national pundits saying the result was good for Democrats? Dave Wasserman, U.S. House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report said on Twitter that Finstad greatly underperformed President Donald Trump’s 2020 results, which he viewed as evidence of a post-Roe political environment that isn’t as favorable to Republicans as they would have liked headed into the midterm elections.

Yet some local Republicans argue Finstad actually did better than the GOP traditionally has in what is usually a highly competitive district.

Here are some takeaways from the race:

How Finstad compared to Trump

It’s true Finstad did worse than Trump in 2020.

That year was also a general election in a presidential year, as opposed to an August special election in which far fewer people turn out to vote. (There were more than three times as many votes for president in the 1st District in 2020 than in the special election.)

Still, Trump got 53.8 percent percent of the vote in the 1st, beating Biden by more than 10 points. By comparison, Finstad received about 50.7 percent of the vote.

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Finstad also underperformed Trump in several of the largest counties. For example, Trump got 43.4 percent in Olmsted County, home to Rochester, while Finstad got 40.4 percent. Trump won 46.4 percent of Blue Earth County, home to much of Mankato, but Finstad won only 42.3 percent of the vote there.

Vote shares for Trump (2020) and Finstad (2022) in 1st district counties
Note: 2022 Results as of 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 10.
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

Finstad racked up votes in less populated counties, and outperformed Trump in some of them, propelling him to victory even as Ettinger won big in some populated districts. In Brown County, which includes Finstad’s hometown of New Ulm, Finstad won nearly 69 percent of the vote, a much larger share than Hagedorn had in 2020 and a small increase over Trump that year. But the overall results could suggest Democrats were more competitive than expected in the 1st, which elected Republican Jim Hagedorn in 2018 and 2020 after DFL Gov. Tim Walz held the seat for 12 years. 

1st Congressional special election votes by county
Note: Results as of 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 10.
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

That could bode well for the party nationwide in a midterm election year in which the president’s party tends to face strong headwinds and Republicans have hoped to win voters amid inflation and high gas prices.

What caused the results?

Ettinger’s relative strength compared to Biden could be because of an improving economic picture, Democratic success passing legislation in Congress or the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe.

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Still, there also might be other factors at play, like the timing of the special election compared to a fall general election. Or simply how Ettinger resonates in the district.

For instance, the biggest swing compared to Trump 2020 was in the one-time DFL stronghold of Mower County, which includes Ettinger’s hometown of Austin, where he once led the meatpacking giant Hormel. Mower County has moved toward Republicans lately, and Trump got 51.8 percent of the vote there in 2020. 

But Ettinger won big in his backyard. In Mower County, Finstad got just 42.3 percent of the vote to Ettinger’s 55.7 percent, a massive shift. Ettinger also received more of the vote – by nearly 8 percentage points – than DFL candidate Dan Feehan in 2020 against Hagedorn.

How Finstad compared to Hagedorn

But while the 1st District may have shifted toward the GOP in recent years, the election results were also hardly out of line with the 2018 or 2020 results in the district.

Rep. Jim Hagedorn
Rep. Jim Hagedorn
In 2020, Hagedorn only got 48.59 percent of the vote and beat Feehan by about 3 percentage points. In 2018, the race was even closer; Hagedorn won by less than one percentage point.

Finstad himself noted this during the special election primary campaign, where he beat nine other candidates on the ballot including the more right-wing state Rep. Jeremy Munson. The district has historically had a centrist reputation, and the GOP has not been an overwhelming force. During a May forum in Rochester, well before the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Finstad said Republicans have only won 50 percent of the vote or more once since 2004.

“So, I want to make sure we all don’t take things for granted and we don’t think that this Republican wave that everyone is talking about is just assumed,” he said.

Finstad ended up with 50.7 percent of the vote.

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Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the NRCC, argued on Twitter that Finstad “OVERPERFORMED” Hagedorn’s 2020 performance.

The Cook Political Report still rates the district as “likely Republican” in the fall general election, where Ettinger and Finstad will face off again. In the rematch, the district lines will be slightly different since they were redrawn following the 2020 Census. But the boundaries are similar across much of the southern Minnesota district. It still contains Mower County, and larger population centers like Rochester and Mankato. And the partisan makeup is not believed to have greatly changed.

Pot parties underperform

One big underperformance was not by a Republican or a Democrat, but by the pot party candidates.

In 2020, the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis candidate got a relatively large 5.81 percent of the vote, which Democrats argue is the reason Feehan didn’t win. There was no marijuana party candidate on the ballot in 2018.

This year, Grassroots Legalize Cannabis candidate Haroun McClellan got 0.7 percent of the vote and Legal Marijuana Now candidate Richard Reisdorf got 1.3 percent of the vote.

Democrats have worked to sway pro-legalization voters and argue the marijuana parties siphon away votes from a party more likely to actually legalize marijuana — at least at the state Legislature.