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The primary for Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District special election is Tuesday: Here’s what’s at stake.

There are nine GOP candidates and seven Democrats vying to advance to the Aug. 24 special election. 

Minnesota voters voting
The primary election in the special election is on Tuesday, where voters will pick their favorite Republican and Democratic candidates among a crowded field to advance to the special election in August.
REUTERS/Nicole Neri

When Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn died in February after a long battle with kidney cancer, Gov. Tim Walz called a special election to fill the remainder of the term representing southern Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District.

The primary in that special election is on Tuesday, where voters will pick their favorite Republican and Democratic candidates among a crowded field to advance to the special election in August. As of Friday, the state had already accepted about 10,000 absentee ballots for the election; 40,781 applications for absentee ballots have been submitted to the state. Polls are open Tuesday until 8 p.m.

After Tuesday, it gets complicated.

The Aug. 9 special election is on the same day as the regularly scheduled primary election for Congress. So voters will simultaneously pick their choice to complete Hagedorn’s term and advance candidates for the regular 1st District general election in November.

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Some will only get to vote in one of those races, however, because the 1st District boundaries changed following the 2020 redistricting process. The special election is within the old 1st District lines, while the regular election is within the new borders.

In all, a candidate could be on the ballot four times between late May and early November.

For now, though, only the special primary election is at hand. But voters’ choice will also likely shape the makeup of the general election race in the fall.

The Republicans

Republicans are favored to win the 1st District seat, once held by Walz, come August. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the seat as “likely Republican” and Donald Trump won the district 54 to 44 over Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

There are 10 GOP candidates who filed to run for the special election primary. At least one candidate, Ken Navitsky, will be on the ballot but is not running for the seat any more. He’s vying for a spot in the Minnesota Senate instead.

Five candidates have raised a substantial amount of money for the race and/or received significant endorsements: Albert Lea attorney Matt Benda; former state GOP chair and Hagedorn’s widow Jennifer Carnahan of Blue Earth; former state lawmaker and Trump USDA official Brad Finstad of New Ulm; state Rep. Jeremy Munson of Lake Crystal; and state Rep. Nels Pierson of Rochester.

Also on the ballot are pipefitter Kevin Kocina, retired electrical engineer Roger Ungemach, biofuels plant manager J.R. Ewing and frequent candidate Bob “Again” Carney Jr.

Republicans held an endorsing convention for the regular fall election, but no candidate got enough delegate votes for an endorsement. Munson led each round of balloting, while Finstad and Carnahan trailed.

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The campaign has been a sprint since it began in earnest in mid-March. With little time to fundraise, several candidates have loaned themselves significant amounts of money

And there has been plenty of debate among the candidates.

Munson’s top issue of the cycle is reducing inflation, which he says is caused by Republican and Democratic tax cuts and spending. He has touted his credentials as a fiscal hawk at the state Capitol and says he plans to join the House Freedom Caucus if elected to Congress. He has been endorsed by Freedom Caucus leadership like U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio and libertarian-friendly elected officials like U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

At the Legislature, however, he has clashed with fellow Republicans, many of whom view him as irrelevant or rigid to a fault in opposing government spending or large packages of legislation known as “omnibus” bills. And some dislike him for bashing GOPers for either their votes or for deals they have cut with DFL leaders. Munson is one of four lawmakers to break from the House Republican caucus to form a separate “New House Republican Caucus.”

Most southern Minnesota elected officials are backing Finstad, who has been supported by a Super PAC that hopes to elect more centrist Republicans. U.S. Reps. Michelle Fischbach of the 7th District and Pete Stauber of the 8th District also endorsed Finstad. Finstad told MinnPost his top issue in the race is reducing fuel prices and “re-establishing American energy independence” by increasing domestic drilling. 

Carnahan has name recognition from her time leading the state GOP and ties to Hagedorn. But she also has her detractors; she resigned under pressure from the Minnesota GOP after several scandals, including a top donor and friend being indicted on child sex trafficking charges. Carnahan says she didn’t have any knowledge of the alleged behavior. Her top issue is “leadership,” criticizing Biden’s economy and foreign policy.

More than 20 Republican state lawmakers have endorsed Pierson, including two prominent state senators from Rochester. But most of his endorsements are from lawmakers outside of the 1st Congressional District.

The Democrats

Eight candidates filed to run as Democrats for the special primary election. Red Wing bookstore owner Rick DeVoe has since left the race though his name will appear on the ballot.

Democrats endorsed former Hormel CEO Jeff Ettinger of Austin at a recent convention. The endorsement is technically for the November regular election, not the special one, but it might hold weight with primary voters anyway.

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Ettinger has a history of voting for and donating to both Republicans and Democrats. He supported Mitt Romney for president in 2012, for instance. But in recent years, spurred in part by an aversion to Trump and Trumpian politics, has donated and supported mostly Democrats, and he gave $500,000 to a political action committee supporting U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s presidential campaign. 

Ettinger is well known in Austin and supported by several current and former officials there, and has the backing of a handful of current and former state lawmakers and mayors across the district. He told MinnPost his top priorities are boosting education and job skills, and his agenda includes proposals aimed at helping family farmers and creating a public health care option. He has raised by far the most money on the DFL side of the 1st District race.

During the campaign, Ettinger has drawn criticism as a wealthy former CEO and for being too much of a centrist. 

Several candidates are running with more liberal agendas. One is Sarah Brakebill-Hacke of Preston, who was homeless and in foster care as a kid but eventually attended Yale and Cambridge. Brakebill-Hacke has a far-reaching anti-poverty agenda that includes a single-payer health care system.

Another candidate is Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor and former top ethics adviser for George W. Bush whose primary residence is in Mendota Heights, outside the district. Painter rose to prominence as a critic of Trump and the former president’s administration, and he unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Sen. Tina Smith in a 2018 DFL primary. Painter has endorsed ideas like tuition-free or low cost college, boosting federal support for wind and solar power and targeting what he views as inflation-causing price fixing by food and energy companies.

Mankato early childhood advocate Candice Deal-Bartell is also in the race, along with North Mankato retiree Warren Lee Anderson, Lake City attorney James Rainwater and Faribault resident George H. Kalberer.

Two candidates filed to run for the major parties supporting marijuana legalization: Haroun McClellan and Richard B. Reisdorf.