In a crowded and hotly contested Republican primary race to replace U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn in southern Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, it can be difficult to differentiate similar candidates.
To shed light on their views, MinnPost asked all nine GOP hopefuls to answer 11 questions in writing ahead of the May 24 primary asking about their views on agriculture, child care, broadband, election policy and more.
Of the four candidates who responded — Jennifer Carnahan, Bob “Again” Carney Jr., Brad Finstad and Jeremy Munson — most had similar views on how to lower gasoline prices, reduce inflation and respond to what they saw as unfair or wrongfully conducted elections in 2020. (Experts, and even top Trump administration officials, say the presidential election was conducted fairly and there was no significant fraud.)
The candidates did split to some extent on other issues, including how to bring high-speed internet to rural areas, whether or not they were vaccinated for COVID-19 — and if they believed Vice President Mike Pence acted correctly in certifying the 2020 election before Congress on Jan. 6 last year.
MinnPost sent the questionnaire to candidates in mid-April. Matt Benda, Nels Pierson, Kevin Kocina, Roger Ungemach and J.R. Ewing did not respond or declined to participate. Ken Navitsky, who was running for Congress at the time, did respond, but he has since announced he’s withdrawing to run for Minnesota Senate instead.
Three of the candidates who did respond are considered to be front runners. Munson, Finstad and Carnahan were the top-three vote getters for a GOP endorsement at the recent 1st District convention, though none got enough to secure the endorsement.
One question asked of the candidates was how they would lower the price of gasoline or pursue “energy independence,” a phrase which many conservatives and others use to describe energy policy that is less reliant on foreign countries. Of the four candidates who answered, most said they wanted to increase domestic oil and gas production, build new pipelines or slash regulations. There were some slight differences. Finstad, a former Trump administration appointee working on rural development in Minnesota for the USDA, was the only candidate to mention he wanted a nationwide E15 standard.
“Increasing ethanol blends in our nation’s fuel supply, even moderately, will result in immediate relief at the gas station,” Finstad said.
Munson, a state legislator from Lake Crystal, said he supports an “all-of-the-above” energy policy that includes everything from nuclear and natural gas to coal with carbon capture and supplemental wind power. But he criticized any government push for electric vehicles, writing that mining for battery materials can result in environmental damage and, at least in some cases, has ties to child labor. “No energy is 100% carbon-free or 100% renewable,” Munson said. “But we can maintain energy independence, while also improving the environmental impact of all forms of energy.”
To cut inflation, four candidates said they want the federal government to stop spending as much money as Congress has under Democratic control. Republicans also spent trillions on pandemic relief under then-President Donald Trump. (Carney Jr. didn’t answer several questions, including the one about inflation, because he’s not running for the regular general election this fall, and sees himself as a temporary caretaker of the seat if elected.)
“First and foremost, we need to stop wasting trillions of dollars on political pork packages,” said Carnahan, who is Hagedorn’s widow and the former chair of the state GOP. “Nancy Pelosi and friends treated the first year of Biden’s Presidency as a giant cash grab, and now Minnesotans are paying the price.”
Carnahan, who resigned from the GOP after a scandal-plagued tenure that included the indictment of a top party donor on child sex-trafficking charges (she has denied any knowledge of the allegations), said Congress should “restore” the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed under Trump that many Democrats have unsuccessfully tried to roll back but that partially expire in 2025, and rework trade deals using the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement as a blueprint.
Most of the candidates said that to decrease crime in Minnesota they hope to empower police, enforce laws strictly and deflect any efforts to defund law enforcement. Carnahan and Finstad mentioned the U.S. should return to Trump-era policies for the Southern U.S. border, while Munson said gun-free zones create situations where law-abiding citizens are defenseless.
On agriculture, most said their top priority was to rein in inflation and rising costs for farmers and reduce regulations.
Views on voting, 2020 election
MinnPost asked the candidates what policies they would pursue to address “election integrity,” a term used by Republicans across the country that can be a stand-in for everything from a critique of local election policies to unfounded claims of widespread fraud.
The candidates were also asked whether Mike Pence did the right or wrong thing on Jan. 6 when he, as Vice President, participated in certifying the election over the objection of President Donald Trump.
Carney Jr. (and Navitsky) said Pence did the right thing. Finstad, Carnahan and Munson did not answer the question directly.
Finstad said there was “a lot of effort to go around the process of changing election laws” in 2020, and said those laws shouldn’t be changed unilaterally by governors, secretaries of states or courts. He endorsed voter identification requirements and opposed new federal rules for elections proposed by Democrats — which he described as a “top-down federal government take over of elections.” On Jan. 6 and 7 of 2021, Finstad had liked Twitter posts critical of the mob attack on the Capitol and in support of Capitol police.
Republican and Democratic state officials across the U.S. did in some cases change election regulations, primarily amid the large shift to mail-in voting because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those decisions were largely upheld by courts, according to Politifact. In one notable instance, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit brought against several of those states by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, saying Texas did not have standing.
In Minnesota, a lawsuit against the state connected to the pandemic was settled when the state agreed to suspend a requirement for people voting by mail to find another registered voter to witness their signatures for the primary and general election. The move was approved by a judge, though it did attract GOP opposition at the time.
Secretary of State Steve Simon told MPR News last week that those types of agreements are pretty common and have happened before in Minnesota and across the country. “The great part about these particular agreements is they’re settlement agreements that are blessed by a court,” Simon said. “But not only that, everyone has a chance to intervene and be heard as to why this isn’t a good idea. That happened. There was vigorous oral argument and written argument. And after the court in these cases blessed these settlement agreements as being in the best interest of the voters of Minnesota, after that happened, everyone stood down.”
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals did, however, require Simon to separate ballots received after election day that were postmarked before the election in case they were later ruled to be invalid. State law says absentee ballots have to be received on election day, and the court said the deadline extension likely violated the U.S. Constitution. The state had planned to count those ballots — and eventually did — as part of the legal settlement. The votes were never ruled invalid.
Carnahan also said she opposed the Democratic federal election proposal known as HR 1, and said Congress needs to “play a very active role in providing the constitutional oversight necessary to prevent a repeat of what we saw in 2020 — sudden, arbitrary, and unconstitutional changes that expose votes to fraud, loss, or abuse — should not be allowed.”
As for Pence, Carnahan said the fact that the question is being asked “almost a year and a half later” proves many doubt the “certified outcome of the 2020 Presidential election.” Carnahan also denounced violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 while leading the state GOP.
Munson said that many members of Congress voted not to certify electors in 2016 and said in many states elections officials unilaterally changed voting in a way that he believes violates the U.S. Constitution, making the election illegitimate. Some Democratic House members objected in 2016 to the electoral college vote in certain states, though they did not get the support of any senators, which is necessary for such a challenge to continue. In 2020, eight senators and 139 representatives — including Hagedorn and 7th District Rep. Michelle Fischbach — voted to sustain at least one objection.
Munson maintains that even he was illegitimately elected to the Minnesota House in 2020 because of the 8th Circuit appeals decision. Munson also is opposed to ballot drop boxes, which he says allow people to “harvest” votes by picking up ballots from many people and dropping them off despite a state law allowing people to carry up to three ballots for others. There’s no evidence of any substantive lawbreaking tied to ballot drop boxes.
And Munson said a nonprofit hired and directed thousands of employees “badged as city and county workers,” to target specific voters in swing states.
The idea is based on the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which awarded $350 million in grants across 49 states, including to 28 Minnesota counties, meant for staffing, training and equipment to run elections. The organization, which was funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, says that every local elections department that asked for money got it. The CTCL did not hire anyone itself. Responding to a Republican-proposed bill in Minnesota to ban such nonprofit practices earlier this year, Simon called the idea that CTCL had swayed any results a “paranoid fantasy.”
Top issues, and vaccination status
One area the candidates did diverge on somewhat was their top issue in the special election. Munson said the most important issue was inflation. Carnahan said leadership, contrasting Trump with Biden. Finstad said the top issue is reducing fuel prices and “re-establishing American energy independence.”
Carney Jr., an outlier in the race for his anti-Trump views, has campaigned on ensuring Trump is not on the 2024 presidential ballot. “I believe that in 2024 we will either elect a Democrat as president, or we will elect a Republican who is not Trump,” he said.
Three candidates said they were vaccinated — Carnahan, Carney Jr. and Munson. Finstad wouldn’t say if he was vaccinated, saying it should be the choice of every individual. (Though he did like pro-vaccine Twitter posts in 2021.) Carnahan, Finstad and Munson all said there shouldn’t be government intrusion in personal decisions over whether to get vaccinated.
Lastly, there were some differences between the candidates on child care and broadband policy.
Carnahan said her plan to improve the availability and affordability of child care in Congress would be to reduce inflation by ending high spending in Washington, D.C. Finstad also said inflation has hit child care providers hard and argued Congress should remove unnecessary licensing regulations and incentivize more child care businesses through tax breaks.
Munson, meanwhile, said the government should not fix every problem, and he called for an audit of the Child Care Assistance Program, a subsidy for low-income families that has faced issues with fraud in the past. Munson said people should look to the free market for solutions such as employers buying and holding child care slots in private day care for their workers.
On Broadband, Carnahan said she supports block grants to states to fund public-private partnerships to build high-speed internet infrastructure. Finstad said investment in rural broadband should be focused on building reliable fiber networks and ensuring mapping of coverage to make sure new networks aren’t duplicative.
“Congress must ensure that all Americans have access to high-speed internet by removing regulations that make it difficult for major investments in rural areas while focusing on “last mile” infrastructure so all Americans have reliable Internet,” Finstad said.
Munson said the government shouldn’t spend billions in taxpayer dollars to support a program that the free market, in his view, already has a solution for. “We have great wireless broadband, like Starlink, which are available anywhere that meet the standards of high-speed internet,” Munson said, referring to the SpaceX service owned by Elon Musk that has drawn praise and criticism from broadband advocates in Minnesota. “The government’s interference will only cause increased internet prices and a chosen few companies to enable broadband in our rural communities.
“Government should not be picking winners and losers and charging taxpayers $12,000 per household to connect forty-year-old technology,” Munson said.