For the perennial candidate, the third time is almost never the charm. It’s usually the death throes of a short-lived political career, another rejection, and a time to throw out an unread victory speech.
For Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who spent the better part of five years running to represent Minnesota’s 1st District, a third run actually meant a seat in Congress. In 2018, incumbent Tim Walz announced he was going to make a run for governor instead.
And with a new president, Hagedorn’s campaign strategy was different: he aligned himself with President Donald Trump, who won Minnesota’s District 1 by 15 points in 2016. Hagedorn himself has in the past been described during the campaign by a local GOP Party chair as “espousing Trump’s positions before Trump was,” for example, in 2016, suggesting that Minnesota take in less Muslim refugees and that the United States is at war with “Islamic supremacists.”
Outspent, but no longer running against an incumbent, Hagedorn won — a dream come true for someone whose father represented part of the district. But his win came with a caveat: He won with the smallest margin in Minnesota and one of the smallest margins in the 2018 midterms: .4 percent or 1,311 votes.
His razor-thin margin and alignment with Trump are exactly why the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the biggest campaign arm of the Democratic Party, has only placed one member of congress on their priority list of 2020 targets: Hagedorn.
For someone who ran on a partnership with Trump, 2020 will be a test of how well Hagedorn can convince his district that he is still the best person to represent them in Congress — and whether Trump still sits well with the district.
A moderate district?
Minnesota’s First District has been at times won by President Bush, Obama, and Trump. Geographically, the district is the entire southern portion of the Minnesota, bordering Iowa, and including the cities of Rochester and Mankato. It also means a region heavy on agriculture and medical services, a place that’s home to both Hormel and the Mayo Clinic.
For districts that come within a hairline of being represented by the other party, one might typically expect talking points like “moderation” and “bipartisanship.” Such was the case with how Walz operated in the district.
Walz, a 24-year veteran of the Army National Guard and a high school teacher, first won the district in 2006 with a message of moderation. He accused his opponent, former Rep. Gil Gutknecht, of being too cozy to Republican President George W. Bush. And he won with 53 percent of the vote, defeating Gutknecht, who himself was swept in on the Republican tide of 1994, when Republicans picked up 54 seats.
When Walz announced his run for governor, Hagedorn’s DFL-endorsed opponent, was someone new: St. Paul native Dan Feehan. Like Walz, Feehan was a veteran and a teacher. And he tried to replicate Walz’s strategy, running on bipartisanship and solutions.
But Feehan didn’t win. And Hagedorn operates entirely differently.
Sticking with Trump
Since he was elected, he has followed through on his campaign message: FiveThirtyEight places Hagedorn as having voted with the President 95 percent of the time. When the president visited the state earlier this month, Hagedorn maintained his vocal support for the president’s policies, arguing that the president’s trade deal with China, Mexico, and Canada can boost the agricultural economy in the state.
Farmers in Minnesota are antsy around the president’s penchant for tariffs. While the Trump administration did announce a $12 billion agricultural assistance program last summer to offset the impact of the tariffs, The Mankato Free Press earlier this month urged Hagedorn “to start standing up for farmers in his district and call for an end to the tariff policy that is crippling the farm economy.”
Michael Petefish, president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, penned a letter in the Free Press that began: “Farmers need action, not lip service, from Rep. Jim Hagedorn,” urging the congressman to sign on to the Biodiesel Tax Credit Extension Act of 2019. (Hagedorn’s colleague to the north, Angie Craig, is a cosponsor, are several of Hagedorn’s Republican colleagues).
Hagedorn has been willing to stake out lonely territory in other instances as well. He was the only representative in the 10-member Minnesota congressional delegation not to sign on to a letter in support of MinnesotaCare. The letter is particularly accented by the fact that the chair of the National Republican Campaign Committee, Rep. Tom Emmer (MN-6), signed it, while Hagedorn did not. (Hagedorn’s spokesperson Becky Rogness said that Hagedorn sent his own letter questioning the change to federal funding of MinnesotaCare.)
Kevin Parsneau, a professor of in the Department of Government at Mankato State University, said that Hagedorn will likely have to answer for voting against the Violence Against Women Act (Emmer and Rep. Collin Peterson also voted no) and for his support of the president’s government shutdown. And, Parsneau added, if Republicans attempt another repeal of Obamacare without a replacement, as the president has been discussing, Hagedorn will also have to answer for that as well.
“Trump promises a replacement, but I doubt it will be fun for his allies like Hagedorn to explain that on the campaign trail next year. A lot will depend upon Trump’s popularity by then, because Hagedorn has hitched his wagon to Trump so far.”
Democrats believe that Hagedorn’s district will be a referendum on how Trump’s policies have impacted the region, and in turn, how much they see Hagedorn as aligned with the president.
Previewing the Democratic line of attack against Hagedorn, DCCC spokesperson Brooke Goren said, “Hagedorn’s priorities are wildly out of step with the needs of his constituents, making him the most vulnerable member of Minnesota’s delegation and priming the district for a return to Democratic leadership.”
As of now it is unclear who will run against Hagedorn. (Feehan did not rule out running again in his 2018 concession speech). What does seem to be clear, for the moment, is that Hagedorn does not intend to compromise or moderate his views.
“Rep. Hagedorn is going to be true to his values,” said Rogness. “Voters didn’t elect him to be a chameleon once he was sworn in.”