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What fundraising and endorsements tell us about the special election in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District

Attorney and GOP activist Matt Benda has reported raising the most among all 1st Congressional District candidates so far. 

On the Republican side, agricultural attorney and GOP activist Matt Benda of Albert Lea has reported raising $168,651, which is the most among 1st District candidates so far.
On the Republican side, agricultural attorney and GOP activist Matt Benda of Albert Lea has reported raising $168,651, which is the most among 1st District candidates so far.
Benda for Congress

In the unusually short campaign for the U.S. House seat representing southern Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, it can be difficult to gauge which candidates are truly competitive in the race to replace Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who died in mid-February.

Rep. Jim Hagedorn
Rep. Jim Hagedorn
But there are a few indicators emerging of who might be contenders in the May 24 primary and the Aug. 9 special election. One is fundraising. The Federal Election Commission released a new round of data on the race over the weekend, showing four of 10 Republican candidates with significant cash and, so far, only one DFLer with much money.

Another measure of potential campaign strength is endorsements, which show who has the backing of powerful or popular people that influence voters.

Neither is a sure sign of success. Remember Michael Bloomberg’s well-financed but failed campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination? But they are data points that help better understand the race.

The fundraising race

On the Republican side, agricultural attorney and GOP activist Matt Benda of Albert Lea has reported raising $168,651, which is the most among 1st District candidates so far. Benda, unlike many other prominent GOP candidates, has no prior experience in elected office or in the upper echelon of the Republican Party. Benda, who also loaned himself $15,000, has more than $170,000 on hand.

Raising and spending for First Congressional District candidates running as Republicans
Source: Federal Elections Commission

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Just behind him is Republican Brad Finstad — a former state lawmaker and USDA director of rural development for Minnesota under president Donald Trump — who reported raising $156,196 and has about $150,000 on hand. Trailing Finstad by a hair is former state Republican Party chairwoman and Hagedorn’s widow, Jennifer Carnahan, who reported raising $151,000 and has roughly $121,000 on hand. Neither Finstad or Carnahan reported any loans.

Brad Finstad
Brad Finstad
State Rep. Jeremy Munson, a Lake Crystal candidate who is part of a small breakaway Republican caucus in the Minnesota House, has raised less: $102,234. But he has by far the most cash on hand to use for campaigning of any candidate — thanks to a $200,000 loan from himself. Munson was the first Republican to file for the 1st District in late February, while most other candidates announced in mid March.

State Rep. Nels Pierson, a more moderate Republican from Rochester, has raised only $11,000, but loaned himself $100,000. The remaining five GOP candidates — Kevin Kocina, Ken Navitsky, Roger Ungemach, J.R. Ewing and Bob Carney Jr. — have reported little to no money raised or haven’t had any info reported by the FEC.

The race for the 1st District could be an uphill climb for Democrats. The absence of an incumbent after the death of Hagedorn did little to shake up Congress watchers’ predictions for the race: Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates the race “Safe Republican,” and the Cook Political Report deems the race “Likely Republican.”

Raising and spending for First Congressional District candidates running as DFLers
Source: Federal Elections Commission

Compared to the Republican side, the DFL side of the race is smaller. 

Jeff Ettinger
Jeff Ettinger
By far, the DFL candidate with the most financial resources — and the only DFLer with anywhere near the amount of cash that some of the Republicans have raised — is one of the party’s most recent entrants to the race: Jeff Ettinger, the former CEO of Hormel, who announced his candidacy in mid-March and reported raising more than $148,000. He has $143,000 on hand.

University of Minnesota law professor and former George W. Bush ethics lawyer Richard Painter entered the race in late February. He made his political debut in 2018 in a U.S. Senate primary challenge to Sen. Tina Smith. Painter has raised roughly $22,200, mostly from individuals, since his entry into the race, and has $17,300 on hand.

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Rick DeVoe, a Red Wing bookstore owner and former political director for a local building trades union, raised $7,500 and has $12,000 on hand. He loaned his campaign $15,000.

Sarah Brakebill-Hacke, a former political consultant who announced her CD1 bid in late February, has raised $9,800 and has $3,500 on hand.

Of course, candidate fundraising isn’t the only money put to work in these elections. Outside spending by political committees also pours into many Congressional races.

Finstad, Pierson, Ettinger capture early endorsements

In the endorsement battle, Finstad and Pierson have corralled most of the Republican “establishment,” otherwise known as current and former elected officials.

Finstad has endorsements from arguably some of the most well-known Republicans in the state. His campaign announced endorsements last week from Republican U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach of Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District and GOP Rep. Pete Stauber of the 8th Congressional District.

“Brad Finstad will deliver on our conservative rural values in Congress,” Fischbach said in a prepared statement. (The state’s other GOP member of Congress, the 6th District’s Tom Emmer, has not made an endorsement.)

Finstad also has the backing of Pennsylvania U.S. Rep. GT Thompson, the top Republican on the House’s Agriculture Committee, as well as most of the southern Minnesota GOP state legislators who have picked a side, including Reps. Brian Daniels, Rod Hamilton, Paul Torkelson, John Petersburg and Sens. Julie Rosen, Gary Dahms and John Jasinski. Former Target CEO Bob Ulrich also donated to Finstad.

State Rep. Nels Pierson
State Rep. Nels Pierson
In April, Pierson announced at least 21 Republican state lawmakers have endorsed him, including longtime Rochester Sens. David Senjem and Carla Nelson, as well as Rep. Greg Davids of Preston. The rest are from outside the 1st Congressional District, however.

Munson has touted endorsements from several conservative members of Congress, including Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan and Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry, who chairs the House Freedom Caucus. St. Peter Rep. Susan Akland contributed to Munson’s campaign.

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Benda’s campaign hasn’t highlighted any endorsements, but spokesman Lukas Severson said the candidate wants to be something of a “free agent,” not tied to anyone or any special interests. Carnahan, who was a polarizing figure during a scandal-plagued tenure as head of the state GOP, doesn’t have any significant endorsements. But media giant Stanley Hubbard, CEO of Hubbard Broadcasting, has donated to her campaign.

In the DFL primary, Ettinger has locked up many of the significant endorsements so far. He has announced backing from a slate of former lawmakers in once-Democratic areas of southern Minnesota like Jeanne Poppe, who represented Austin in the state House from 2005 until 2020, when she lost to a Republican. Also endorsing Ettinger is former Rep. Jack Considine of Mankato, former Rep. Kathy Brynaert of Mankato and former state Sen. Dan Sparks of Austin.

Several mayors are backing Ettinger, including Pat Baustian of Luverne, Mike Kuhle of Worthington and former Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm. Current state Rep. Gene Pelowski also supports Ettinger.

Brakebill-Hacke touted on social media that she has been endorsed by Jamie Mahlberg, a former DFL state House candidate from Rochester and Jovy Rockey, a former candidate for mayor of Winona.