In southern Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District — considered a must-win U.S. House race by both parties — Republicans and Democrats wrapped up their convention business in short order last Saturday.
But they set the table for two very different election-year circumstances: the DFL quickly coalesced behind one candidate, and though Republicans overwhelmingly endorsed one candidate, they’ll get a months-long primary fight that could turn bitter and contentious.
In Le Sueur on Saturday, Dan Feehan, a former Department of Defense official under Barack Obama, picked up the DFL endorsement following two rounds of voting by delegates, and a unanimous pledge of support from his main rivals.
In Mankato, meanwhile, Republican activists met and endorsed Jim Hagedorn, the GOP candidate here in 2014 and 2016, on the first ballot. As expected, state Sen. Carla Nelson, his main rival, declared her intent to take the nominating decision to voters in an August 14 primary.
A no-fuss nomination is a welcome development for 1st District Democrats: incumbent Rep. Tim Walz, who has kept this district blue since 2007, announced last year that he’d vacate this seat to run for governor of Minnesota — putting his familiar name off the ballot, and his formidable presence off the campaign trail.
Democrats now have the spring and summer to build a general election campaign that can compete in CD1, which despite Walz’s success has historically preferred Republicans, and voted for President Donald Trump by a 15-point margin in 2016.
Republicans believe this district should be safely in their hands — some GOP operatives call CD1 their best pick-up opportunity in the country — but a looming primary will complicate their effort to make that happen.
With three other highly competitive U.S. House races elsewhere in Minnesota — not to mention two U.S. Senate races — demanding national attention and donor dollars, both sides will have to make the case for CD1’s relevance in determining control of Congress this fall.
Feehan headed into Saturday’s convention a favorite to pick up the party’s endorsement: he’d consistently posted the strongest fundraising numbers out of the four leading candidates, picked up support from a large group of local party figures, and earned the backing of key interests like public sector employee unions.
Competing with Feehan for the endorsement were attorney Rich Wright, clean energy advocate Joe Sullivan, and former state Sen. Vicki Jensen. On the first ballot at the convention, Feehan got 54 percent of delegate support — just below the 60 percent threshold needed to secure the endorsement — while Sullivan got 18.5 percent, Wright got 16.7 percent, and Jensen got just under 11 percent.
Delegates voted a second time, but before the results were released, Wright, Sullivan, and Jensen addressed the convention to concede the endorsement and announce their support for Feehan, who then officially secured the party’s backing by acclamation.
Feehan told MinnPost on Sunday he believes the party is unified and ready to work to keep the seat in their hands. “The feeling everyone had leaving the convention was powerful,” he said, adding that he believes Democrats are energized to win in a way they were not in 2016. “The energy in the room matched every county convention and caucus night. That energy is there in a way… It’s outside your control, but gosh, it’s nice to have.”
At Mankato’s Verizon Center, Republicans finished their endorsement business in a similarly quick fashion: on the first ballot, Hagedorn got 76 percent of delegate support over Nelson’s 21 percent. For Hagedorn, a former U.S. Treasury official who lives in Blue Earth, it was his second consecutive endorsement by the CD1 GOP. (He was defeated by Walz in 2016 and in 2014, when he failed to get the GOP endorsement but prevailed in a primary.)
But Nelson, who has represented a Rochester-area state Senate seat since 2012, had been aiming to take this race to a primary anyway, so Saturday’s result was more like a formality. Now, southern Minnesota Republicans get the chance to voice their preference in an August primary, setting up a intraparty fight that could turn bitter over the next five months.
In a statement, Nelson said the stakes this fall are “too high for us not to put our best candidate forward.” She touted her electoral success in Rochester, the base of DFL support in CD1, where she noted she outperformed Trump on the 2016 ballot — and Hagedorn.
“I’m excited for the primary ahead, where I can share my message of proven, conservative leadership with voters across southern Minnesota,” Nelson said.
Primary a ‘speed bump’ — but a big one
Some Republicans see a primary as a necessary evil to get Nelson, who they believe is a better candidate, to the general election, while others see a primary as an unnecessary distraction in a contest they believe Hagedorn is well-positioned to win.
Matt Pagano, a longtime GOP operative in Minnesota who formerly worked for the state party, is in that latter camp. He said a primary is a bump in the road for Republicans in their quest to take the CD1 seat. “But it’s a pretty big bump,” he added.
He argued that Hagedorn, who has had two general election campaigns to increase his profile in the district, is best-positioned for the general election, and said Nelson’s campaign lacks a strong rationale after GOP activists voted to give Hagedorn the endorsement by a 50-point margin.
Policy-wise, the two candidates are similar: they are both conservative Republicans and vocal backers of President Trump. Speaking of the challenge facing Nelson’s camp, Pagano says, “The argument has to be, Jim Hagedorn is so bad that I alone can do it.” He said it would be hard to make that argument, given the facts on the ground, from Hagedorn’s support at the convention to his fundraising advantage. (He currently has $330,000 in cash on hand, compared to Nelson’s $215,000.)
After securing the endorsement, Hagedorn’s team touted the support of the GOP’s activist base: “His strong demonstration of unity and support proves delegates believe Jim best reflects the views and values of southern Minnesotans and that his strong campaign committee and tireless work ethic provides our party with the best opportunity to win the November election,” CD1 GOP chair Carol Stevenson said in a statement sent out by the campaign.
How damaging a primary is to the GOP’s chances in November may hinge on how bitter the contest between Hagedorn and Nelson gets. A preview was offered at the convention, when state Rep. Nels Pierson, an early Nelson supporter, gave a speech critical of Hagedorn that rubbed his camp, as well as some rank-and-file delegates, the wrong way.
Tensions flared in the lead-up to the convention, when an opinion article ran in the right-leaning Washington Examiner newspaper declaring Hagedorn “the worst Republican candidate in America,” drawing on his losses to Walz and his controversial past as a one-time star in the conservative blogosphere.
Some Republicans believe that a stronger candidate could have easily defeated Walz in 2016, when Trump carried the district by 15 points. (Hagedorn lost by less than a percent.) In his official endorsement of Nelson, who he called a political mentor, Pierson said “We don’t need past failed candidates, or want political elites telling us who our candidate should be. We need a proven leader who knows how to get things done.”
Democrats: ‘Full speed ahead’
Beyond sparking infighting, a tough GOP primary could have more concrete effects, Pagano said, like prompting national conservative donors to keep their checkbooks shut until Republicans decide on a candidate in the August primary.
That could be a boon for Democrats, who will need every advantage they can get to defend a seat that some Republicans think is their best chance to gain a House seat in the entire country.
Feehan said that part of his pitch to voters is situating the battle for CD1 in a national context, given that Democrats are making a big push to take control of the House of Representatives. A 23-seat gain in this fall’s elections will give Democrats the majority for the first time since 2010.
Southern Minnesotans understand that the stakes of control of Congress are high, Feehan said. “Living in a place where resources are so scarce, while the top one percent of earners make more and more, that translates to people,” he says.
Democrats are eager to win in CD1, says DFL consultant Darin Broton, and Feehan’s quick skate to the endorsement reflected that. But he added that Feehan will need to make the case he is worthy of investment from national Democratic donors and party organizations in this intensely competitive election year.
National Democrats believe their path back to a House majority primarily runs through suburban districts like Minnesota’s 3rd, where GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen is up for re-election, and where voters preferred Hillary Clinton by nine points in 2016.
The 1st District includes population centers in Rochester and Mankato, but it is a mostly rural expanse of farmland, stretching 21 counties across southern Minnesota, from the border with Wisconsin to the border with South Dakota. Per the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voter Index, CD1 prefers Republican candidates by an average of five points, though Barack Obama carried the district in both 2012 and 2008.
In a crowded election year, Broton said that Feehan’s challenge “is showing why donors should give him money instead of [Angie] Craig and [Dean] Phillips,” the DFL candidates in the suburban 2nd and 3rd Districts. “Too many races, for both parties.”
As Hagedorn and Nelson battle it out, Feehan could face incoming from national GOP groups: the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to Speaker Paul Ryan, is reported to be considering an ad campaign against Feehan, who was until recently a D.C. homeowner, and has not lived in Minnesota since he left his hometown of Red Wing at age 14. (Technically, Feehan could face a primary — DFL candidate Johnny Akzam, who did not receive any delegate support on Saturday, may continue his candidacy.)
But Feehan told MinnPost he feels good about his chances, and plans to get back out on the campaign trail — this time, for the general election — as soon as possible. “It’s full speed ahead,” he said. “We have this race ahead of us, and we’re going to take the message that worked for us thus far.”