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Meet the 20 — yes, 20 — candidates vying to replace Jim Hagedorn in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District

The 20 hopefuls will first run in a May 24 primary before an Aug. 9 special election, the winner of which will represent the district until the winner of the November regular election takes over. 

Rep. Jim Hagedorn, right, talking with Matt Crescenzo, owner of Bulltear Industries in Scandia.
Rep. Jim Hagedorn, right, talking with Matt Crescenzo, owner of Bulltear Industries in Scandia.
MinnPost file photo by Walker Orenstein

Voters in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District sent Jim Hagedorn to Congress twice, and as the district trended more Republican, he was favored to be re-elected for a third term.

But Hagedorn died last month of cancer, which has prompted an August special election for the open seat before the regular general election race in November that will be decided by voters in a 1st District redrawn following the 2020 Census.

The district — which runs from the Wisconsin border to the South Dakota border and includes Rochester, Mankato, Winona, New Ulm, Albert Lea, Austin, Luverne and Worthington — was held by Democrats as recently as 2016, when DFLer Tim Walz, who is now the governor, won his sixth term in Congress representing the area. 

And while Democrats hope to compete again in 2022, much of the focus will be on the Republican side, where voters will pick from among a broad field of candidates, from far-right conservatives to those marketing themselves as pragmatic problem solvers.

The field

Twenty candidates filed to run for the office before Tuesday’s 5 p.m. deadline. Those congressional hopefuls will first run in a May 24 primary before the Aug. 9 special election, the winner of which will represent the district under its current boundaries before the winner of the November regular election takes over.

Jennifer Carnahan
Jennifer Carnahan
Ten Republicans are vying to replace Hagedorn, including two state lawmakers, one former legislator and the former head of the state Republican Party.

That former head of the Minnesota GOP is Jennifer Carnahan, who will be a controversial figure in the race. Carnahan married Hagedorn in 2018 and said this week that her husband wanted her to run for his office before he died in February. But Carnahan resigned as state GOP chair after a scandal-plagued tenure, and Republicans have not cleared the field for her candidacy. 

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Also in the race are two state legislators: Rep. Nels Pierson, a Rochester Republican and president of a construction company who is serving his fourth term in the state House; and Lake Crystal Rep. Jeremy Munson, a conservative first elected in 2018 and who broke from the state House GOP to form the right-wing “New House Republican” caucus.

State Rep. Nels Pierson
State Rep. Nels Pierson
Former state House member Brad Finstad of New Ulm is also running. After leaving the House, Finstad worked as an official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Trump administration, focusing on rural development.

There are also a handful of outsiders and activists, including Matt Benda, an agricultural law attorney and GOP activist who previously chaired the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce; Ken Navitsky, a sales executive who previously was a kicker at Minnesota State University in Mankato and an announcer for monster truck events; Kevin Kocina, a master pipefitter and former U.S. Marine Corps member who is running for office in part because a loved one was fired from her job as a nurse for not getting vaccinated; and J.R. Ewing, general manager of a biofuels plant in Glenville near Albert Lea.

The Minnesota GOP isn’t holding an endorsing convention for the special election because local party units were dissolved for redistricting. Republicans from the 1st District will, however, endorse someone in April for Congress “as part of the reapportionment process,” according to a statement from party chairman David Hann.

Brad Finstad
Brad Finstad
There are eight candidates on the DFL side, including former Hormel CEO Jeff Ettinger; Sarah Brakebill-Hacke, a political consultant and advocate for the unhoused; Red Wing bookstore owner Rick DeVoe; Candice Deal-Bartell, an early childhood education advocate and founder of a child care business in Mankato; and Richard Painter, the University of Minnesota law professor and former ethics lawyer for the George W. Bush administration who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Sen Tina Smith in a 2018 primary run for Senate.

The last person to file for the race was Haroun McClellan, a candidate for the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis party. Richard B. Reisdorf is also running as a Legal Marijuana Now party candidate.

A wide variety of Republican candidates

The 1st District is heavy on agriculture and medicine, home to Hormel and the Mayo Clinic. And in the GOP primary, many are touting their farming credentials.

State Rep. Jeremy Munson
State Rep. Jeremy Munson
“I think at the end of the day agriculture is the prime industry and still has a big influence on what the voters in CD1 are looking for,” said Republican state Rep. Paul Torkelson, a longtime legislator from Hanska who was first elected in 2008 and has endorsed Finstad.

In interviews, several Republican candidates cited high gas prices, a desire for U.S. energy independence, plans to reduce inflation and also opposition to COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates.

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But there are differences in what issues candidates tend to focus on most. Munson, the legislator from Lake Crystal who noted his farming and business background, contrasted himself with more moderate candidates in the race, saying he has been taking “bold stances that the primary voters have asked legislators to do,” nodding to Republican base voters furious with COVID-19 mandates and skeptical of, or who outright reject, the results of the 2020 presidential election (which experts say was fairly conducted and produced legitimate results).

Kevin Kocina
Kevin Kocina
Munson touts that he introduced the first resolution at the Capitol to end Gov. Tim Walz’s peacetime emergency related to COVID-19, filed lawsuits against Walz over COVID-19 restrictions and against Secretary of State Steve Simon to seek a delay in certifying the 2020 election results. (The lawsuit against Walz was unsuccessful and Minnesota’s election results were certified.)  His website also says his “America-First” agenda includes sending Anthony Fauci to prison. Fauci is the director of the country’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has been the face of much of the federal government’s response to COVID-19.

Benda, the agricultural attorney, said he plans to focus on pocketbook issues like inflation and high gas prices. And he said agriculture issues “when you really get down to the nitty gritty policy, those are the ones that long-term matter most for our district.” But he also said the people he talks to are also fired up about having a voice in their child’s education and making sure children “are not being indoctrinated” in schools, a reference to the fears of some parents that schools are teaching critical race theory, which is not part of Minnesota’s K-12 social studies standards, or other concepts related to systemic racism. He said Fauci was given too much power, which needs to be scaled back, though didn’t call for jailing the doctor.

Matt Benda
Matt Benda
Pierson, one of the more moderate Republican candidates, touted working in a “collaborative way to pass the priorities of southern Minnesota” in his announcement for Congress.

Torkelson said he doesn’t see dramatic differences in the positions of candidates on policy in the conservative GOP field. But Torkelson said what he does see is “fairly dramatic differences in experience.”

Torkelson, along with state Sen. Julie Rosen of Fairmont, has endorsed Finstad, and Torkelson is currently working to get more legislators to coalesce around his former legislative colleague, citing Finstad’s “depth of experience” in rural policy development for the Trump administration and a nonprofit, as well as in agriculture. (Finstad, who didn’t return a request for comment, also previously led the state Turkey Growers Association.)

Torkelson drew distinctions between Finstad and Munson, saying Munson’s breakaway caucus isn’t impactful at the Capitol and saying voters in the first district are “looking for somebody who is going to go to Washington and work in cooperation with his or her colleagues when they get there.”

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Finstad has been endorsed by U.S. Rep. GT Thompson of Pennsylvania, who is the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, while Munson is endorsed by another Pennsylvanian, U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, who leads the House Freedom Caucus, an ultra-conservative bloc that has clashed with Democrats and Republican leaders in Washington.

Perhaps the best known candidate is Carnahan, who in her campaign announcement said she wanted to continue Hagedorn’s “legacy of fighting to secure the border, defending conservative values, safeguarding the integrity of our elections, and serving the people of Minnesota’s First Congressional District.”

Carnahan has some victories from her time at the helm of the state GOP between 2017 and 2021: She cleared a huge debt the party had amassed and Republicans flipped the 1st, 7th and 8th Congressional Districts from blue to red during her tenure. Her website also features pictures of her with Donald Trump and says on the front page that she is a “Trump Republican.”

Minnesota's First Congressional District
Office of the Secretary of State
Minnesota's First Congressional District runs from the Wisconsin border to the South Dakota border and includes Rochester, Mankato, New Ulm, Albert Lea, Austin, Luverne and Worthington.
Yet Trump also lost Minnesota in the 2020 presidential election, and in 2018 GOP candidates lost every race for statewide office along with the 2nd and 3rd Congressional Districts. Carnahan also resigned as chair of the state GOP last year after a top party donor who she had close ties to, Anton Lazzaro, was indicted on charges of sex trafficking minors. She also faced accusations that there was a toxic work environment and sexual harassment within the state party during her time leading it.

Carnahan has said she had no knowledge of Lazzaro’s alleged activities, and she has also denied allegations that she permitted a toxic culture within the state GOP while at the helm. 

Some Republicans criticized Carnahan this week. Munson said he doesn’t know what Carnahan’s policy positions are and questioned if she was even a conservative. He said people liked her marketing skill at the state party, but said ideas people may like for “redesigning the booth at the State Fair” don’t translate into being a legislator.

Torkelson said Carnahan being Hagedorn’s widow might resonate with some voters. But he said she didn’t campaign with Hagedorn “side by side” early on and said he believes “there’s not a real deep connection there” between 1st District voters and Carnahan. “I also believe she does come with some baggage, mostly as a result of turmoil in the state party,” he said.

For her part, Carnahan lashed out at critics this week for the Lazzaro scandal, telling reporters there is a “double standard” because other Republicans took money from him without being criticized. “The question that no one ever asked over time was why was I being singled out for that?” she said.

Democrats hope for an upset

So far, the Democratic field has been quieter. No candidates have won public office before, but Ettinger might be the most well-known candidate in the district. The long-time Austin resident led Hormel as CEO from 2005 until 2016, during which the company added 3,500 new jobs, according to his campaign. He now chairs The Hormel Foundation and serves on Gov. Tim Walz’s economic expansion council. 

Jeff Ettinger
Jeff Ettinger
In an interview, Ettinger billed himself as a successful business leader and “a moderate who will look for balanced solutions” as Republicans are “purging itself of all its moderates.”

The first-time candidate said he’s still developing some policy positions as he listens to voters, but he said his experience will help as people look to lower costs and strengthen supply chains. Ettinger also said he will aim to make prescription drugs more affordable and boost K-12 and higher education to help prepare everyone for the future economy. 

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Winning the 1st District will be an uphill battle for Democrats, especially since an incumbent president’s party tends to do poorly in midterm elections. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the district as “likely Republican.” 

Yet Ettinger said the district isn’t so conservative as to be out of reach. It has flipped back-and-forth between the GOP and DFL before, and Ettinger said lately there has been a “winner-take-all” mentality in the last couple of years where the person representing the district cares only about GOP voters. He said he would provide bipartisan leadership that Walz offered and described Walz’s handling of the pandemic as a middle ground between more and less restrictive states. 

Sarah Brakebill-Hacke
Sarah Brakebill-Hacke
Another DFL candidate, Deal-Bartell, said she is focused on efforts to provide accessible and affordable early childhood education, raising pay and benefits for workers, especially frontline pandemic workers and improving women’s rights. 

Her strategy to win in a conservative-leaning district is to meet lots of people and in part to “make it a priority to hear the perspective of everybody, including constituents that aren’t Democrats.”

Richard Painter
Richard Painter
Brakebill-Hacke, who is finishing up a graduate degree at the University of Cambridge in England, said her background as a formerly homeless person who also spent time in foster care gave her a window into how the government truly needs to change and will help her connect with people in a way that others can’t. She said her focus will be on increasing access to basic needs like affordable housing, access to healthy foods, higher wages and on addressing racial inequity.

Painter, the UMN professor who challenged Smith and considered a third-party run for governor against Walz, said he’s planning to move to Faribault in April (he currently lives in Mendota Heights) and said he wants to boost affordable health care, address inflation and what he considers to be price gouging. “Big railroads, big pork and poultry producers and energy companies have amassed monopoly power used to squeeze consumers and labor alike,” Painter said on Tuesday in a Twitter post.