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Latest GOP feud stirs up questions ahead of special election in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District

Questions like: What exactly is Jeremy Munson doing? 

Matt Benda, shown speaking at the 2022 GOP Convention in Rochester, filed Tuesday to run in the general election primary.
Matt Benda, shown at the Olmsted County GOP convention in Byron, filed Tuesday to run in the general election primary.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

Update: Matt Benda says he has filed to withdraw his name from the Aug. 9 primary election ballot.

There’s another round of interparty feuding in the GOP over the 1st Congressional District seat in southern Minnesota.

Last week, Republicans selected their candidate to replace the late U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who died in February, electing Brad Finstad in the GOP’s special election primary. Finstad, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture official, will face the winner of the DFL primary, former Hormel CEO Jeff Ettinger, in a special election on Aug. 9.

But there’s been a twist in the race. 

That August special election is only to fill the remainder of Hagedorn’s current term, which ends in January. But there will be another election on that same day, a primary for the general election that will determine which candidates will run to represent the GOP-leaning district for two years in the next Congress.

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To the dismay of the state and district GOP, Jeremy Munson and Matt Benda, two Republicans who lost last week’s special election primary to Finstad, filed Tuesday to run in the general election primary. Munson lost to Finstad in the special election primary by a little more than 1 percent of the vote, while Benda came in fourth in a crowded field.

State Rep. Jeremy Munson
State Rep. Jeremy Munson
Benda reversed course two days later on Thursday, asking the state to withdraw his name from the ballot.

But it’s not clear how serious the new challenge from Munson will be. He already lost once, and now Finstad has the full backing of the GOP.

It’s also possible that one factor in Munson’s decision to run in the general election had less to do with winning and more to do with campaign finance rules. Under federal election law, the candidates were allowed to receive contributions of up to $2,900 per individual for the primary. But unless they continue to be candidates for the office, they would have to return all contributions they received that were intended for the general election.

According to filings with the Federal Election Commission, Munson reported nearly $256,000 nearly $256,000 in cash-on-hand on May 4, a personal loan to his campaign of $200,000 and also continued to raise money money until the May 25 primary.

After being silent for two days, Benda withdrew by saying the confusing overlapping elections led to detailed campaign finance reporting requirements his campaign needed to review to stay compliant with. “There were unprecedented federal election commission details that needed to be resolved prior to me formally withdrawing from this race,” Benda said in a statement. “I spent the past two days working with my compliance and legal team to resolve these issues.”

So far, however, Munson has been silent about his intentions. He hasn’t said anything publicly about filing for the general election primary, which he did just days after calling for Republicans to support Finstad, at least in the special election. Munson at the time even mentioned “exiting” politics. 

In an interview before Benda withdrew, Aaron Farris, chairman of the 1st District Republicans, said he heard from people close to the candidate that Benda was not actually planning to contest the fall election. But Farris said he hasn’t heard from Munson, who declined MinnPost requests to comment.

Finstad is proceeding as if Munson is running to beat him, said spokesman David FitzSimmons. And either way, the party is frustrated, Farris said, because Munson and Benda were clear in pledging not to run in the August primary for the two-year term if they lost the special election primary last week. And neither contested the endorsement of Finstad at a convention last week.

Brad Finstad
Brad Finstad
“It’s very clear who the people of the first district want both from the party perspective and the perspective of the general population,” Farris said. “At this point, the Democrats have been unified behind a candidate. Jeffrey Ettinger is going to be their candidate for both the August election and the November election. That’s settled, that’s done, no one is really contesting that, he doesn’t have any significant opposition. The Democrats are unified, and that’s what we need our party to be as well.”

Farris said Munson — a former 1st Congressional District GOP chairman himself — has a long record of calling for candidates to abide by party endorsements. Farris said the party will now have to spend time and resources explaining the multiple races that will be in front of voters to avoid confusion and to promote Finstad. And it appears they may also have to spend time defending Finstad against Munson.

“That’s why we have our endorsement is so we can spend more time going after the Democrats and electing a Republican than having these intraparty battles that really do nothing to help us,” Farris said. 

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FitzSimmons, the Finstad spokesman, said Munson filing is disappointing, but he said if Finstad has to win two elections Aug. 9, he will. Still, FitzSimmons said the numerous candidates on the ballot may exacerbate “voter confusion” about the special election and the primary election being together on one ballot — at least for people living in the old and new 1st District boundaries. “The voters think they just did this, and now you have people asking for a redo on that,” he said.

In a statement released shortly after the candidate filing deadline on Tuesday afternoon, Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman David Hann said that as former local party officials, Benda and Munson “should have more respect” for Finstad’s endorsement by GOP primary voters. The state GOP has fiercely fought intraparty primaries in statewide races and they were successful in clearing the field for endorsed candidate for governor Scott Jensen. Their endorsed attorney general candidate, Jim Schultz, is being challenged by MyPillow attorney and 2018 losing AG candidate Doug Wardlow.

“We are strongly disappointed to see Matt Benda and Jeremy Munson file a primary campaign in the First Congressional District,” Hann said at the time. “Republicans are united behind Brad Finstad’s campaign to keep the First Congressional District in GOP hands and fire Nancy Pelosi in November.”

In a post on Twitter Thursday afternoon, the state GOP said they “applaud Matt Benda for honoring the endorsement.”

“We continue to call on Jeremy Munson to do the same – there are still a few hours to the withdraw deadline,” the post said.

To wrest control of the U.S. House from Democrats in November, Republicans need to hold on to all their seats and flip just five Democratic seats. They can’t afford to lose Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District. 

Jeff Ettinger
Ettinger for Congress
Jeff Ettinger
Two Democrats, George Kalberer and James Rainwater, also filed to run in the primary on Aug. 9 against Ettinger, but neither is expected to be a serious challenger. Kalberer won less than 1% in the primary for the special election and Rainwater won only 2.37%.

Ettinger deputy campaign manager Maggiy Emery said her candidate is not concerned about the competition. “We have a candidate that the voters have coalesced around,” Emery said. “The same cannot be said for the Republican side.”

One problem for both Ettinger and Finstad is that the national parties aren’t likely to come to their aid if they have a primary challenge. Both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee shy away from involvement in primary elections. The national parties could, however, help Ettinger and/or Finstad in the general election to temporarily win the seat. But the race hasn’t been considered competitive enough yet to warrant help from Washington, D.C. That could change, and Emery said Ettinger’s campaign has had conversations with the DCCC. 

“They are watching this race very closely and if we have a fighting chance and it looks like a good race they will come in for us,” she said.

Meanwhile, to beat Finstad in a primary race, Munson would have an uphill battle of beating at least the local Republican party apparatus.

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The primary election for the full two-year term will also be held under the new district lines, redrawn following the 2020 Census, meaning the electorate will be different. The 1st Congressional District gained Goodhue and Wabasha Counties and lost Le Sueur County. Farris noted, however, that Munson actually got 62 percent of the vote in Le Sueur County, winning the relatively small county by nearly 640 votes.

In the primary campaign, Munson ran to Finstad’s political right, saying Republicans shouldn’t elect “squishy” conservatives who will go to Washington, D.C. and grow government. 

Munson was already a target for much of the Republican establishment leading up to the primary election. At the state Capitol, the Lake Crystal lawmaker first elected in 2018 is one of four Republicans to break from the House Republican Caucus to form a separate bloc that operates independently. And Munson is known for needling Republican leaders for not being, in his view, conservative enough on certain issues. He has a wide following on social media compared to other state legislators and describes himself as acting on principle rather than being swayed by lobbyists or the political establishment.

Benda, meanwhile,  is an attorney from Albert Lea and a longtime Republican Party activist.