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Despite civil tone of race, Finstad and Ettinger locked in hard-fought contest 

The candidates vying to represent Minnesota’s First Congressional District differ over issues and argue over those policy differences. But the national parties and interest groups who fund attack ads have largely stayed out of the race.

Rep. Brad Finstad and Jeff Ettinger have shied away from name-calling and the dirty tricks that have become more prevalent as Election Day on Nov. 8 nears.
Rep. Brad Finstad and Jeff Ettinger have shied away from name-calling and the dirty tricks that have become more prevalent as Election Day on Nov. 8 nears.

WASHINGTON — While it may not be exactly “Minnesota nice,” the race between Republican Rep. Brad Finstad and Democrat Jeff Ettinger has been characterized by an unusual civility in a brutally combative election season, belaying a hard-fought political contest.

The candidates vying to represent Minnesota’s First Congressional District differ over issues and argue over those policy differences. But the national parties and interest groups who fund attack ads have largely stayed out of the race. And the candidates themselves have shied away from name-calling and the dirty tricks that have become more prevalent as Election Day on Nov. 8 nears.

National Democrats have stayed out of the race, likely because Ettinger, a former Hormel CEO, was able to put $1.2 million of his own money in the race, allowing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to concentrate on defending vulnerable Democrats elsewhere, including Rep. Angie Craig, D-2nd.

And Finstad, who won a special election against Ettinger in August to fill the remainder of the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn’s term, has done well on his own in campaign fundraising and is favored to win re-election in the largely rural district that stretches 250 miles from Wisconsin to South Dakota. So the national Republican Party has largely stayed out of the race – at least up to now.

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“Republicans have already figured this race is in their column,” said Michael Minta, professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

But civil or not, this campaign is not a sleeper. It’s more competitive than expected since Finstad won the special election by only four percentage points over Ettinger and despite some recent polls that suggest otherwise.

Finstad said he chatted pleasantly with his political rival just before a recent candidate debate in Mankato, because “there’s a kind of brotherhood that develops when you both run for four elections in six months.” Before running against each other in the special election, both candidates competed for two party primaries, one for the special election and one for the general.

“The politics of punching each other in the face verbally and trying to get sound bites to get on Fox News or CNN is not a way to show our children how we as a country can govern and we should model our behavior in Congress,” Finstad said.

Ettinger called the tone of his campaign “civil,” as he said southern Minnesota voters expect political candidates to be polite.

That does not mean the candidates agree on much and they offer First District voters a clear choices when it comes to issues.

In the home stretch of the campaign, Finstad is hammering Ettinger with an attack Republicans are hoping will win them majorities in the U.S. House and Senate. That strategy is to blame Democrats for inflation and economic uncertainty.

Ettinger says global concerns – including the war in Ukraine, which has driven up energy prices – are driving inflation and Finstad’s attacks “are not correct.”

While his first television commercial focused on abortion rights, Ettinger’s latest campaign ad  pivots to economic concerns, with a focus on the Inflation Reduction Act’s $35 limit on insulin prices for Medicare recipients and its rollback of a prohibition that kept Medicare from negotiating certain drug prices. Finstad, on his first day in office,  voted against the Democratic bill, which garnered no GOP votes.

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“Finstad says voting against it was an ‘easy no,’” Ettinger says in the ad. “He does whatever his party tells him.”

With polls, including one commissioned recently by MinnPost, showing voters are more concerned with economic issues than the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade, many Democrats like Ettinger, are shifting their messages.

Ettinger told MinnPost “the economy is front and center” and hopes his background as a former CEO of a company with 20,000 employees and a $10 billion budget will resonate with voters who are seeking good economic management from Congress.

Even so, a recent New York Times/Sienna poll showed voters most concerned with the economy favored Republicans overwhelmingly, by more than a two-to-one margin.

“Democrats are in a tough spot,” Minta said.

 Moderate Democrat v. conservative Republican

Finstad and Ettinger have very different backgrounds and relationships with their parties.

Ettinger is an attorney who moved from California to Austin, Minnesota more than 30 years ago to join Hormel Foods, rising to become the company’s CEO before retiring in 2016. He now heads the Hormel Foundation, a non-profit that helps charities and educational organizations. He has never held political office.

Ettinger, who said he’s “running as a moderate candidate with mainstream positions,” has supported both Republicans and Democrats before and would join the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of centrists, if he were elected to Congress.

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He disagrees with President Biden’s move to forgive some college debt, saying “government spending should go towards those in need.” He has also been critical of the Affordable Care Act, saying the “affordable” aspect of the law was left on the cutting room floor, and opposes a “Medicare for All” solution to the rising cost of health care.

Democratic Gov. Tim Walz and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith have helped Ettinger campaign. But he’s shying away from national Democrats, like Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who are being demonized by Republican candidates, including Finstad.

“I’ve never even met (Pelosi,)” Ettinger said.

Meanwhile, Finstad stresses his background as a fourth-generation New Ulm, Minnesota farmer with a Norwegian grandfather who imparted rural wisdom. He’s also the owner of a soil lab operation and served in the state legislature before he was tapped by the Trump administration to serve as a local U.S. Agriculture Department official.

Finstad’s campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But on his campaign website, the Republican lawmaker said he is “a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, defending the unborn, and keeping government out of the way so entrepreneurs, farmers, and small businesses can thrive.”

In his short time in office, Finstad has not deviated from voting with his party leaders on every major bill and he has amplified the national GOP’s talking points.

His latest television ad, in which Finstad drives a tractor, features a narrator who says:  “Reckless spending is fueling inflation and radicals are driving up gas prices. Brad Finstad is fighting back.”

“As a farmer, and father of seven, I knew Washington’s mess was hurting Minnesota families,” Finstad says in the ad. “But I just got to Congress, and it is worse than I thought. That’s why my first vote was against more taxing and spending.”

Government spending, mostly in response to the pandemic, has helped drive up inflation. But most economists say the biggest reason for today’s inflation is the Federal Reserve’s lowering of interest rates, which occurred largely during the Trump administration. Worker shortages and rising wages and supply chain disruptions as well as fossil fuel policies also added to inflationary pressures, those economists say.

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As with most competitive races, turnout will impact the results of the election for the First Congressional District seat.

Ettinger said he’s confident he “can make up the 4%” of votes that cost him the special election to Finstad this past August. The borders of the First have shifted slightly through redistricting since then, and that may mean there are slightly more Democratic voters in the district. But it may be independent and unaffiliated voters who cast the deciding votes in the election, and polls show them recently breaking for the GOP in other states.

The Cook Political Report rates the race “likely Republican.”

Democrats have no margin for error in November’s midterm election. The party has a slim five seat majority in the House and the Senate is 50-50, with the flipping of a single seat delivering a Republican majority to that chamber.

Still, if Democrats lose the House and Ettinger also loses, but not by much, the race will be analyzed by the party as part of a postmortem in which it will have to decide whether the pathway to maintaining congressional majorities is embracing liberal policies that activate the base or moderating to win the middle.