In southern Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, DFL Rep. Tim Walz was able to win six terms in Congress over the last decade — an achievement in this historically Republican region.
The keys to Walz’s success in this mostly rural district that stretches from the Mississippi River to South Dakota have been his relatively moderate politics, intense focus on district issues like agriculture, and an affable, accessible style that even his detractors found hard to resist.
That approach kept CD1 in DFL hands, even as Democrats in other parts of rural America have gradually been wiped out, and even as Walz’s constituents preferred Donald Trump by a 15-point margin in the 2016 election.
But this time around, Walz is running for governor of Minnesota, making CD1 an open-seat contest — and Republicans are ready to pounce and claim a seat they believe is rightfully theirs.
Republicans have two candidates vying for that shot: Jim Hagedorn, who lost to Walz in 2014 and 2016, and state Sen. Carla Nelson. They’re running on strongly conservative platforms and hugging Trump, believing voters will reward one of them for it in November.
Meanwhile, six Democrats are in the running for the party’s nomination, a field that includes a former Barack Obama administration official, a former state legislator, a former military attorney and a clean energy advocate.
Most of the DFL candidates speak admiringly of Walz, and the leading candidates are attempting to emulate his playbook, emphasizing a parochial focus on the district’s issues that is informed by conversations with constituents.
Everyone agrees that CD1, like many pockets of rural America, has plenty of tough issues to deal with: skyrocketing health care costs, declining farm income, and the opioid crisis are just the start. The dominance of local issues could insulate the district from the national mood in November, but as a top GOP pick-up opportunity, southern Minnesota will be on the front lines of the battle for control of Congress.
Red by the numbers
To hear some of the Republicans involved in the race tell it, CD1 is a fundamentally Republican district, conservative in character, and Walz’s decade representing it was an aberration.
In the past 80 years — a period in which CD1 generally comprised parts of southern Minnesota — the district has sent just two Democrats to the House, Walz and former Rep. Tim Penny, who served for a combined 23 years.
But look elsewhere on the ballot, and CD1 is harder to pin down: Trump won in 2016 with 53 percent of the vote compared to Hillary Clinton’s 38 percent. But Barack Obama carried CD1 in 2012 and 2008, former Sen. Al Franken carried CD1 in 2014, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar won by a 30-point margin in her 2012 re-election campaign.
The Cook Report’s Partisan Voter Index, which calculates the partisan leanings of congressional districts, finds that CD1 prefers Republican candidates by an average of five points. That is a stronger GOP preference than Congressional Districts 2 and 3, both held by Republicans, and Congressional District 8, another one the party wants to flip.
The CD1 track record both sides talk a lot about, though, is Walz’s. Before he defeated Hagedorn by just 2,000 votes in 2016, Walz won re-election by an average of 14.5 points, and never had a serious scare before the year of Trump.
Hagedorn argues that Walz was a “unique figure… Frankly, when he was running for Congress, he took positions down here that he thought fit the district.”
Ahead of his 2016 battle, Walz shared his view on how to win in CD1: “You cannot run in this district to be on the far right of the Republican Party. You cannot run being on the far left of the Democratic Party, “ he said. “It’s because of the way it was drawn, most people live within the 30 yard lines.”
Democrats focus on district
The Democrats battling to keep CD1 in DFL hands are, generally, keeping within those 30-yard lines. The four leading contenders for the nomination defy easy partisan categorization, though they’re generally a more moderate group than the DFL field in the 8th District — which went for Trump by the same margin as CD1 — in which the five candidates in the running all support single-payer health care.
The four candidates who spoke with MinnPost — Dan Feehan of Mankato, Vicki Jensen of Owatonna, Joe Sullivan of Mankato, and Rich Wright of Rochester — all emphasized their personal approaches to winning over voters and a focus on district-centric issues like agriculture, energy, and health care in talking up their candidacies for Congress.
Feehan is a former U.S. Army Ranger and Iraq War veteran who served under Barack Obama as a top official at the Department of Defense. After leaving his hometown of Red Wing at age 14, Feehan returned in early 2017 to live in the Mankato area.
Feehan shares with Walz a background in military service — the incumbent was a Command Sergeant Major in the National Guard — as well as an upbeat tone and disposition.
He told MinnPost that CD1 voters are “looking for people who will provide solutions, whether that’s in health care, the rural economy, or national security… I think I can make the appeal I’m someone who would fight for them, and get things done on their behalf.”
Feehan does not advocate for single payer, but believes the Medicare eligibility age should be lowered to 55. He refrained from criticizing Trump too much, but he talked about the agriculture sector — a huge chunk of the economy in this district, which is home to ag giant Hormel — being in jeopardy, partly in thanks to the administration’s aggressive rhetoric on trade.
If Trump has any role in the CD1 race, Feehan said, it’s underscoring the need to have a Congress that acts as a co-equal branch, “one that’s able to check what I believe are the consequences of his presidency so far,” he said. “It’s not a referendum on character.”
Jensen, an insurance agent who represented Senate District 24 from 2012 to 2016, is aiming to draw a contrast with the rest of the field by emphasizing her roots in southern Minnesota and her fluency in agriculture and health care issues.
“People are looking for someone who’s passionate, who’s homegrown, and understands the issues and has the ability to talk with them about what they’re facing,” Jensen said.
“The policies coming out of Washington are very distressing to ag. Farmers are listening, they’re paying attention, and there’s anxiety, not just because of what happened in the election in 2016,” she said, calling what’s happening now a “farm crisis.” Like Feehan, Jensen wants to lower the Medicare eligibility age to 55, and to add a public option on health care exchanges.
Sullivan is also emphasizing his southern Minnesota bona fides and connection with rural issues. “The 1st District has tremendous prosperity, the Mayo Clinic, great companies like Hormel, a top producer of corn, beans, and pork,” he said. “The fundamental issue is despite this prosperity, it is not shared prosperity… Far too many communities are dying. It’s the heart of the urban-rural split.”
Sullivan, a lawyer who currently works in the clean energy industry, believes renewable energy could be the future of the rural economy. He called for legislation to replace coal-fired power plants with clean energy facilities once they’ve reached the ends of their lives.
Wright, an attorney who served as a judge advocate general in the Army, is offering the most progressive platform of the four leading DFL candidates. Unlike the other three, he is calling for a $15-per-hour minimum wage, Medicare for All, and a reinstatement of a ban on assault weapons.
Wright said health care affordability is the number one issue in the district, and shared stories of farmers who say they’re paying upwards of $30,000 to cover costs for insurance on the individual market. “When I bring up the transition to Medicare for All, people understand that, and they like that,” he said. “They see that as a viable, practical, commonsense solution to what’s hitting them right now.”
A question of authenticity
A theme running through the DFL candidates’ remarks and campaigns is the idea of authenticity — that southern Minnesota needs to be represented by someone with deep roots in the region and shares the views of the people who live there.
That emphasis, shared by Jensen, Sullivan, and Wright — all of whom have spent many years or their entire lives in CD1 — may amount to a jab at Feehan, who left Minnesota at a relatively young age to live in Illinois and D.C., and to serve overseas. (Feehan’s hometown of Red Wing is no longer in the 1st District.)
Republicans are seeking to brand Feehan as a carpetbagger and creature of D.C.: one prominent super PAC, Paul Ryan’s Congressional Leadership Fund, plans to make Feehan’s one-time home ownership in the District a point of attack in the election.
Feehan responds that his background rarely comes up on the campaign trail, and if it does, “it gives me a chance to talk about how I’ve been spending my life,” which, he says, has mostly been spent under oath to defend the U.S.
The question of fielding the “right” candidate for the district will be a pressing one for Democrats here. The example of western Pennsylvania’s 18th District, which preferred Trump by 19 points but sent Democrat Conor Lamb to Congress in a special election, looms over CD1 and other Trump districts where Democrats want to compete.
Lamb was seen as a centrist whose military background and Pennsylvania bona fides gave him credibility with Trump-sympathetic voters. The DFL candidates are grappling with how to replicate such a victory, and what that would mean for their stances on Trump and on the issues.
Wright said his positions on the minimum wage and single payer are just “common-sense solutions to the issues that are facing us” and that the people running on them “are winning in deep-red districts nationwide. I know we can win it here.”
“I’m a little skeptical to say the blue wave is going to work everywhere the same way,” Jensen said. “It depends on if they pick the right candidate to put forward… it’s been proven out in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin,” she said, referencing the recent elections. “When people talk about why they’re winning, it’s because they fit the district.”
Feehan said he’s seeing an “anxiety about every issue” and that Trump’s first year in office hasn’t assuaged those anxieties in CD1. “I see that unaddressed anxiety carrying over to the 2018 election… I don’t see that translating into continuing to give a chance to the president.”
Republicans’ race to lose?
Republicans see it differently: Hagedorn believes Trump’s support in CD1 is as strong as ever, and that will translate into a Republican victory in the fall.
The former U.S. Treasury official — who made a name for himself as a fire-breathing right-wing blogger with the nom de plume of “Mr. Conservative” — said the Democrats in the running are “far-left” on key issues.
“I’m on the other side, offering a clear contrast. I want to be a conservative reinforcement in the U.S. House, partnering with President Trump,” he said. “People in southern Minnesota want strong borders, they want to protect the country, they want to get rid of onerous regulations… This is a time to make big conservative change for our country, state and region.”
Republicans in the district face a choice of their own, however: running against Hagedorn for the GOP nomination is state Sen. Carla Nelson. Nelson, who has represented Senate District 26 in Rochester since 2011, jumped into the race in October, and is running on a platform that emphasizes her long record in the legislature and her accomplishments there for her district.
“There’s only one conservative in this race with a record of delivering conservative reforms and that’s me,” Nelson said in a statement to MinnPost, touting her work on tax cuts, infrastructure, and education policy.
Like Hagedorn, Nelson emphasized that she’d work to advance Trump’s priorities in Congress. She praised GOP legislative achievements like the tax cut bill, but lamented that lawmakers fell short on repealing Obamacare, among other things. “We finally have a President that is ready to sign health care reform, major infrastructure investment, funding to secure our border, and so much more, but Congress can’t get the bills to his desk,” she said. “In Washington, just as I have in St. Paul, I will fight for the conservative reforms that the voters elect me to fight for.”
Nelson has notched endorsements from some national conservative groups, such as the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, along with backing of some local state legislators. Hagedorn locked up some GOP establishment support early, picking up the endorsement of 6th District Rep. Tom Emmer, who is a top official at House Republicans’ campaign arm.
Most who are familiar with the race expect Hagedorn — who by now has deep connections to the CD1 delegates who decide the endorsement — to lock up the party’s support when Republicans meet on April 21. They expect Nelson to challenge him in a primary, and she is raising money to prepare for an August showdown.
Democrats in Minnesota and Washington are hoping for a bloody GOP primary, and hope to avert one of their own. CD1 DFLers meet on April 21, in Le Sueur, to endorse a candidate. The four leading Democrats all have agreed to abide by the party’s decision. Through a spokesperson, Walz said he won’t be endorsing anyone before the district convention.
“This has never been about one person, it’s been about a grassroots movement across southern Minnesota dedicated to making sure we have representation that reflects our values,” Walz said. “I have no doubt in November southern Minnesotans will make sure their representative in Congress is able to keep doing the work of improving people’s lives.”