WASHINGTON — Rep. Brad Finstad won a special election to represent southern Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District by a smaller margin than many political watchers expected, but as he seeks re-election, the Republican has a very special benefit – the advantage of incumbency.
When he was sworn in to represent the district last month, Finstad joined a very exclusive club. Incumbents to the U.S. House of Representatives enjoyed a nearly 95% re-election rate in 2020. In in the past 50 years that re-election rate has climbed as high as 97% and never dipped lower than about 85%, according to Open Secrets.
“Few things in life are more predictable than the chances of an incumbent member of the U.S. House of Representatives winning reelection,” Open Secrets said.
Still, Finstad, 46, is not a long-term incumbent and there are other factors playing into his race against Democrat Jeff Ettinger.
Finstad’s four-point win over Ettinger in the special election last month prompted a political analyst to move the general election race from “solid Republican” to “lean Republican” because President Joe Biden lost the 1st District by more than 10 percentage points.
A former Hormel executive who is running as a centrist Democrat, Ettinger, 63, said he’s encouraged by his narrow loss. He also pointed out that Rep. Jim Hagedorn, a conservative Republican who represented the 1st District until his death in February, barely won his races against Democrat Dan Feehan in 2018 and 2020.
Finstad looks at those election results in a different way.
“It was the largest margin of victory in the First District since 2014, and it was the highest vote percentage a Republican for Congress has received in the district since 2004,” he said of his special election victory.
Ettinger said he expected Feehan to run for the seat again this year. But Feehan demurred. So Ettinger said he worried that the district would be represented by someone too ideological for what he views as a “purple” district.
“I was pretty sure the Republican who would end up in the race would be someone doctrinaire who would not represent the district,” said Ettinger, who lives in Austin.
So, having retired from Hormel and “with the kids out of the house,” the former business executive who has never held elected office decided to run for 1st District seat, launching his campaign on a promise that he’d keep a certain distance at times from the Democratic Party.
Yet Ettinger, who has given and loaned his campaign at least $900,000, is very much an underdog in the race. The power of incumbency is one reason.
“(Finstad) has all those perks of office that are to his advantage,” said Cindy Rugeley, a University of Minnesota-Duluth assistant political science professor.
As an incumbent, Finstad has an office expense account that allows him to hire staff who can attend to the needs of individual constituents. He’s hired some of Hagedorn’s staffers and others with different backgrounds, said David FitzSimmons, Finstad’s senior adviser. The new lawmaker plans to set up two district offices, one in his hometown of New Ulm and another in Rochester.
Finstad is now able to increase his visibility by holding official functions in the district and sending official emails and snail mail releases to constituents about his positions on issues and the votes he’s taken.
Finstad is also better positioned as an incumbent to seek help for his re-election from his party – in the narrowly divided U.S. House the GOP can’t afford to lose the 1st District seat. And Finstad’s position as an incumbent makes him more appealing to political action committees and other donors and outside groups who are spending to boost his candidacy.
“Being an incumbent is certainly helpful, because of the earned media attention you garner and the relationships you build with national donors and activists,” said Jacob Rubashkin of Inside Elections.
Finstad has been named to the House Agriculture Committee and the House Education and Labor Committee. As a member of the agriculture panel, Finstad will be able to work on the farm bill – a priority in his district – when the committee holds hearings in the weeks before the election.
“When there’s something in the ag (agriculture) bill, the local media will call him for comment,” Rugeley said, “He’ll get this free attention and his opponent will have to pay for it.”
In his short time in office, Finstad has cleaved to the House GOP party line. He’s voted against the Inflation Reduction Act, a Biden health and clean energy initiative, and opposed the president’s efforts to forgive some student loan debt. Like most Republican candidates, Finstad is blaming Democrats for inflation and for a spike in crime.
The freshman lawmaker said he believes he’s “very much aligned with the majority of my constituents in southern Minnesota.”
“What I hear more than anything else are the hardships of the current economy,” he said. “Soaring energy costs have cost consumers, and the ripple effect has caused inflation on almost everything. President Biden, Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats are doing nothing to help the situation. They continue to increase government spending and restrict domestic energy production, both of which continue to fuel inflation.”
As far as running as an incumbent, Finstad said he’ll have to juggle to perform his official duties in Washington and continue to campaign in the district. The House returns from its summer recess next week.
“I have the additional task of setting up a congressional office and performing official duties like voting in Washington,” he said. “So, it takes more time, but it is a great privilege to work for and represent the people of southern Minnesota.”
Meanwhile, Ettinger will continue to try to distinguish himself as an independent voice in the district who, unlike his opponent, is willing to sometimes disagree with his party leaders.
“Sometimes it’s hard to back your party,” Ettinger said.
The former businessman, who has supported Republicans as well as Democrats in the past said that if all lawmakers followed their party line “you could just send robots” to Washington.
With about two months until the general election, the 1st District seat is now Finstad’s to lose. Talk of a GOP “wave” has been muted as Biden’s poll numbers have improved and Republicans have faced a backlash over the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Still, most analysts predict Finstad has the advantage.
“It’s a Republican-leaning district,” Rugeley said.
Meanwhile, Rubashkin of Inside Elections said, “the bigger difference in dynamic will be turnout.”
“Ettinger benefited from relatively heftier turnout in the more Democratic areas of the district such as Olmstead County, which reflects a Democratic enthusiasm edge in special elections post-Dobbs this year,” Rubashkin said. “In a general fall election, though, the two parties are likelier to be on more equal footing, rather than one side being extra motivated to turn out for an unusual race. That should be a slight advantage to Finstad.”
Also at play – which wasn’t in the Aug. 9 special election – is the newly drawn district that could impact the race, though not believed to be dramatically.