Update: This story has been updated from a previous version.
Former Trump USDA official Brad Finstad and ex-Hormel CEO Jeff Ettinger will face each other in the Aug. 9 special election for Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District following the vote in crowded Republican and Democratic primary races Tuesday.
The special election was called by Gov. Tim Walz to fill the remainder of U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn’s term after he died in February after a long battle with kidney cancer.
Ettinger, a Democrat, sailed to victory, garnering more than 64 percent of the vote. But the Republican Finstad eked out a narrow 388-vote win over state Rep. Jeremy Munson of Lake Crystal in a race that pitted a candidate backed by the Republican establishment against a hard-charging prospective member of the House Freedom Caucus.
The margin in the race is outside of a threshold that would trigger a publicly funded recount. Munson conceded Wednesday morning.
“I promise to fight the extreme Biden and Pelosi agenda that is devastating our families,” Finstad said in a statement.
A tight GOP race
Republicans are favored by many to win the special election in August, despite the district having been held by DFLer Tim Walz as recently as 2019. Trump won the district in 2020 with 55 percent of the vote and 2022 is expected to be a more favorable political climate for the GOP.
Finstad served three terms in the Minnesota House from 2003 to 2008. He later led the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and the nonprofit Center for Rural Policy and Development before being appointed by Donald Trump in 2017 to lead rural development work in Minnesota for the USDA.
On the campaign trail, Finstad pitched himself as a problem solver and successful legislator who helped pass bills with some bipartisan support to expand gun rights and fund pregnancy centers that dissuade women from having abortions.
He told MinnPost the most important issue in the election is “re-establishing American energy independence” and lowering gas prices through increasing domestic drilling.
In his statement early Wednesday, Finstad said he will also work to reduce inflation, “get control of the border” and “put our families first.”
“Our district should not become a rubber stamp for the radical Democrat agenda that keeps kids out of classrooms, shuts small businesses down, and forces strict mandates on everyone but themselves,” Finstad said.
Placing second was Munson, who was formerly the 1st District GOP chair and even led delegate voting at a 1st District convention, though no one was ultimately endorsed.
Munson, however, drew little support from his Republican colleagues at the Minnesota Capitol. Many view him as an ineffective and uncooperative voice who is too rigid in opposing government spending. Munson broke from the House Republican Caucus to form a separate four-person bloc at the Capitol and is also known for criticizing GOP leadership that he believes isn’t conservative enough.
Munson was backed by Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, as well as Freedom Caucus Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania. Finstad had the endorsement of many southern Minnesota state lawmakers and U.S. Reps. Michelle Fischbach and Pete Stauber of Minnesota.
Finstad and Munson split on many key issues. Munson pledged to never vote to raise the debt ceiling, which Finstad said he generally opposes but didn’t rule out. Munson said he wanted to jail Dr. Anthony Fauci; Finstad said Congress should focus on other things. Finstad told MPR News he would not have objected to the results of the 2020 election in Congress. Munson said he would have voted not to certify on Jan. 6, as Hagedorn did.
Munson was sharply opposed to government funding for high-speed internet infrastructure, while Finstad said investment in rural broadband should be focused on building reliable fiber networks and ensuring mapping of covering is accurate so new networks aren’t duplicative.
Munson argued on the campaign trail that the district was solidly Republican enough for voters to pick a right-wing fighter rather than a more moderate candidate. Finstad responded by saying the district wasn’t deep red, and that GOP candidates have failed to clear 50 percent in recent elections.
Hagedorn’s widow Jennifer Carnahan, who formerly chaired the state Republican Party, came in third in the Republican primary. She won about 8 percent of the vote.
Ettinger wins easily
Ettinger, of Austin, is a first-time candidate for office who held the top job at Hormel from 2005 to 2016. He has a history of supporting Republicans and Democrats but, spurred by an aversion to Trump and Trump-style politics, he has lately supported Democrats and donated heavily to some. He currently leads the Hormel Foundation and is on the board of The Toro Company and Ecolab.
During a call from a gathering at Steve’s Pizza in downtown Austin Tuesday night, Ettinger said he’s running “as a long-term community and business leader who can bring a common-sense, nonpolitician’s approach to Washington.”
He said he would try to reduce the temperature in Washington, D.C., and hopes to “eliminate some of the polarization.”
Ettinger told MinnPost his top “local level” priorities include helping people gain skills to get quality jobs and bringing more opportunity for young people in the region, as well as helping smaller family farms and serving on the House’s Agriculture Committee.
On a national level, Ettinger said he would want to codify abortion rights if Roe v. Wade were overturned by the Supreme Court to “protect women against being made into criminals,” called for Congress to “move on climate change,” and said he would support two bills Democrats say would protect voting rights — the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.
“This country has had a long history of getting to where we are today,” Ettinger said. “We’re past the stage from the 1800s, where only white male landowners had the right to vote and we need to not go backward in that regard.”
Ettinger raised significantly more money than any Democrat or Republican, in part thanks to a $200,000 donation from himself to the campaign. Several GOP candidates, including Munson, loaned themselves large sums of money as well.
Sarah Brakebill-Hacke of Preston came in second in the DFL primary. She was homeless and in foster care as a kid but eventually attended Yale and Cambridge. Brakebill-Hacke had a far-reaching anti-poverty agenda that included a single-payer health care system.
Ettinger faced criticism during the primary campaign for his more centrist agenda and for being a wealthy former CEO of a major food company. Hormel expanded under his tenure, creating thousands of jobs, but also had some labor, environmental and animal welfare violations. Rena Wong, organizing director for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663, which represents Hormel workers, called Ettinger a “decent guy” who was responsive to workers and the union.
The primary for the regularly scheduled election in the 1st Congressional District is on Aug. 9, the same day as the special election featuring Ettinger and Finstad. But the special election will be held under current 1st District boundaries, while the regular race will take place under redrawn lines following the 2020 Census. The future 1st District includes new areas, like Red Wing, and doesn’t include some parts of the current district like Le Center.