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The race in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District is either about politics or personality — depending on which candidate you ask

Jim Hagedorn argues the First is fundamentally Republican district. His DFL opponent, Dan Feehan, emphasizes his  biography — military, teaching, government.

Dan Feehan and Tim Walz, left, chatting with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 343 members and touring their training facility.
MinnPost photo by Sam Brodey

Two weeks before the November 6 midterm elections, Dan Feehan is talking about quitting.

Speaking in front of a dozen Democratic volunteers about to set off for an afternoon of door-knocking in Rochester, Feehan — the DFL candidate in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District — offered up some inspiration by talking about the hardest thing he’d ever done: training to become a Ranger in the U.S. Army.

He recalled one night, when he and a fellow soldier were ordered to stand outside in the dark, deprived of sleep and food, for hours. “This feeling is starting to come up,” he said, “I want to quit. This is miserable.”

“I turned to the soldier next to me and he immediately responded. He said, ‘quit tomorrow.’” Feehan says he wiped his face and stammered that he wasn’t going to quit. “He said, ‘yeah, quit tomorrow. And when tomorrow comes, quit tomorrow. Soon enough, you’re going to be there.’”

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Feehan is only a few tomorrows away from the end of his latest challenge: running for Congress in one of the most competitive races in the entire country — one that Republicans believe is one of their best chances anywhere to pick up a Democratic-held seat.

Jim Hagedorn, the Republican nominee, ran in 2014 and 2016 against Rep. Tim Walz, the Democrat who has held this southern Minnesota district since 2006. Hagedorn narrowly lost to Walz in 2016, as Donald Trump surged to a 15-point margin of victory over Hillary Clinton. With Walz vacating this seat to run for governor, Hagedorn — who has been running for the CD1 seat basically uninterrupted for the last five years and has a deep well of support within the GOP — is confident that this is finally his year.

Part of his argument is that Feehan is not Tim Walz, and is too liberal to get elected in what he argues is a fundamentally Republican district — one that is “pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-God,” as Hagedorn put it to MinnPost in an interview.

But Feehan’s campaign is borrowing liberally from the Walz playbook, emphasizing the candidate’s appealing biography — military, teaching, government — and advancing a message that eschews hot-button issues in favor of talk about bipartisanship and optimism.

In this toss-up race, both candidates frequently say they are offering a clear choice for voters — but they’re very different sets of choices. To hear Hagedorn tell it, the decision comes down whether CD1 wants a conservative or liberal; to Feehan, it’s whether they want a pragmatist or an ideologue.

‘He was espousing Trump’s positions before Trump was’

“I think we’ve been here about 20 times,” Hagedorn said on a crisp Tuesday morning as he walked around the streets of downtown Preston, the seat of Fillmore County, which is southeast of Rochester.

There are few people who know the turf of CD1 — a district that includes 21 southern Minnesota counties stretching from the South Dakota to Wisconsin borders — better than Jim Hagedorn. His father, Tom, represented the district in the 1970s and 1980s as a Republican; after a career as an official at the U.S. Department of the Treasury in Washington, Hagedorn returned to southern Minnesota and launched a bid for Congress in 2010.

Jim Hagedorn
MinnPost photo by Sam Brodey
Jim Hagedorn: “I’ve never been afraid to let voters know I wanted to partner with President Trump, keep moving the country in the right direction, to fulfill the legislative program that he and I ran on in 2016.”
Eight years later, the 56-year old is a fixture among local Republicans, and he seemingly knows everyone in the activist community — and community members more broadly. As he made the rounds in Preston, more than one person recognized Hagedorn from a parade earlier in the year. (The Republican says he’s walked a total of 350 miles of parades across his runs for Congress.)

Gary Stuart, the chair of the Fillmore County GOP, was accompanying Hagedorn around town. The first time he met Hagedorn eight years ago, Stuart says he thought he should be a congressman. “He’s been consistent,” Stuart says, adding: “He was espousing Trump’s positions before Trump was.”

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It’s a point that the candidate and his allies return to often, and to underscore it, they usually point to an op-ed that Hagedorn wrote in the Star Tribune in 2015, in which he pushed to stop refugee resettlement in the U.S. in response to terrorist attacks in Europe. Trump later picked up the idea, arguing in his 2016 campaign that he would stop resettlement until the U.S. figures out “what the hell is going on.”

“It just so happened that, as I was running for Congress, a guy came along and ran for president on virtually the same issues,” Hagedorn said of his 2016 bid.

But while CD1 voters flocked to Trump, they also sent Walz back to Washington, albeit by a margin of less than one percentage point. For Hagedorn and his allies, that defeat was mostly explained by the fact that national Republicans didn’t see the Trump-leaning direction of places like southern Minnesota and did not invest in candidates like Hagedorn, who was outraised by Walz and got little help from key groups like the National Republican Campaign Committee. (Other Republicans, meanwhile, have groused that a better candidate would have defeated Walz in 2016.)

With significant national GOP support behind him, Hagedorn believes this is finally the moment for his staunchly conservative platform to carry him to Congress. His campaign, which he launched shortly after the 2016 election and before Walz ran for governor, is keeping a close focus on national issues like immigration and taxes along with abortion and guns.

“I think the district leans right, has leaned right all along,” Hagedorn told MinnPost, sitting in the Sweet Stop and Sandwich Shoppe in Preston. He argued that Walz has mostly ran here as a centrist Democrat. (“He sounded like a Republican in some of these areas,” he said.)

“I’ve never been afraid to let voters know I wanted to partner with President Trump, keep moving the country in the right direction, to fulfill the legislative program that he and I ran on in 2016,” Hagedorn said. “And that, if Dan were to win, he’s gonna go out and vote for a Democrat, be part of a group to take us in a far different direction, to resist [Trump] at every point, to replace him if possible, and move us far to the left.”

Military service is front and center

Before talking to DFL volunteers, Feehan was near the Rochester airport, visiting the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 343 to tour their training facility. He popped around the warehouse-like space, asking a few 20-somethings in sneakers and Carhartt jeans about what they were working on, what their educational background was. “That’s awesome” was the most frequent refrain from the 36-year old, clad in a button-down shirt and jeans.

After doing a roundtable with local labor leaders and Walz, who was back in CD1 for his own campaign, Feehan sat down to catch his breath. “When that November 6 comes, I want the feeling of, there wasn’t anything I didn’t leave out there,” he told MinnPost. “You keep earning it one day at a time.”

Feehan’s work ethic is something he shares with Walz, who won six elections in CD1 thanks to a relentless energy and hustle. The two men also share a biographical asset in this district, which is home to 40,000 veterans: military service.

Walz served for 24 years in the Army National Guard, rising to the rank of Command Sergeant Major; Feehan made it through Ranger training and then served two combat tours during the Iraq War. He went on to serve as a top official in Barack Obama’s Department of Defense. (Walz enlisted at age 17; Feehan, who spent his childhood in Red Wing and moved to North Mankato in 2017, enlisted after graduating from Georgetown University.)

In stump speeches and in campaign literature, Feehan’s military service is front and center. But he also connects that to his outlook on politics: “As an army officer, I didn’t care if the soldier next to me was Republican, or Democrat, or independent,” Feehan said. “What do we need to get done? That’s the mentality.”

When it comes to what he would get done in Congress, Feehan emphasizes reforming health care — he’s in favor of adding a public option — and passing comprehensive immigration reform. He’s energetic in talking about national security issues and in describing why Trump’s tariff-heavy approach to trade is bad for CD1.

But, like Walz, Feehan truly lights up when he talks about the way he would get these things done. “The entirety of my childhood was based on this idea: I watched people not just get along but get things done in spite of what would be considered disagreement,” he said.

“I’ve been very intentional to try to build a coalition that goes beyond the Democratic Party, frankly,” Feehan went on. “Because winning in the 1st District, looking at its voting history, this is an independent-minded place of people. I don’t think it’s the partisan place my opponent portrays it as.”

“My opponent is fixated on the idea of the political spectrum because that’s the only way that he knows how to function. I have a tough time imagining him working inside the Republican Party, let alone the other side of the aisle. And I think that’s a problem.”

CD1’s ‘independent streak’

Minnesota’s four battleground U.S. House races are at the top of national Democrats’ and Republicans’ priority lists — and they’ve dumped tens of millions of dollars to fund TV ads and other campaign communication so far.

As of Friday, however, no Minnesota district had seen more outside spending than CD1: over $10 million has been spent to influence the race. Of that total, $5.5 million has gone to bankroll attack ads against Feehan, which have primarily been run by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a GOP super PAC linked to Speaker Paul Ryan, and the NRCC. Democratic-aligned groups, meanwhile, have spent $2.5 million to attack Hagedorn, particularly on health care, by arguing he’d prevent people with pre-existing conditions from accessing care.

But it’s the attack ads against Feehan that have attracted national scrutiny: one, from the NRCC, attempted to link Feehan to violent far-left protesters through the liberal billionaire George Soros, who funds a D.C. think tank Feehan has worked for. (Attacks that use Soros are widely considered an anti-Semitic dog whistle, a point Feehan has made.) Other GOP ads have also sought to paint Feehan as insufficiently supportive of the military, a tactic the candidate compares to the “swift boating” strategy that Republicans used against John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, in the 2004 presidential race.

At the union event in Rochester, Walz drew attention to those ads, telling MinnPost that CD1 is a district “that will respect leadership, understand service. I gotta tell you, if I haven’t served a day in uniform and I went after someone who served two tours in Iraq, I’d be a little nervous about that with the voters.”

Though CD1 voters went big for Trump, they supported Barack Obama and George W. Bush in past presidential elections, and supported Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Sen. Al Franken in their most recent elections.

This week, the only major poll of CD1 was released: the KSTP/SurveyUSA poll showed Feehan leading Hagedorn, 47 percent to 45 percent. That lead was well within the poll’s margin of error, but the result was closer than many Republicans would like to see in a district that they are very optimistic about — and one that is key to their hopes of staving off a “blue wave” and holding on to their 23-seat majority in the U.S. House.

That same poll found Trump’s approval rating was underwater by three points in the 1st — which could spell trouble for Hagedorn, who has reminded voters at every turn that he’s running to be a “reinforcement” for Trump in Congress.

In a sign of the GOP’s enthusiasm for this district, the president visited Rochester in October, backing Hagedorn along with other Republican candidates. Hagedorn pulled out his phone and showed MinnPost a photo he took of Trump inside his presidential limo, which the two of them rode from the Rochester airport to the rally. (“I found him to be someone who really cares about the folks,” Hagedorn said of Trump.)

“It’s up to the Congress,” Hagedorn said, “are you going to work with the president to implement those ideas, or are you going to work against him to block those ideas? That’s what Dan Feehan is, a far-left guy who doesn’t support the major initiatives of President Trump.”

Like other Democrats running in Trump-favoring districts, Feehan says he’d work with the president on topics such as infrastructure and agriculture. He has been on the offensive on Trump’s tariffs, which have sparked anxiety in southern Minnesota’s agriculture economy.

“It’s about being a check and balance, being independent enough to stand up to the president but being independent enough to also work with the president,” Feehan said. “If you don’t have that independence, that’s what’s out of touch with southern Minnesota values.”

Darin Broton, a DFL strategist from Dodge County in the heart of CD1, said the race was a “barnburner” with both candidates running mistake-free campaigns. “The reason why Trump did so well, and why Walz almost lost, was the rural folk,” he said. “The question is, do those folks show back up this cycle?”

“A lot of those folks have a conservative bent to them, but they still have a big independent streak running through them.”