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Are Minnesota’s Trump Voters Looking for a Check on Him?

Dan Feehan and Jim Hagedorn have different ideas of what Trump voters want

Jim Hagedorn, the Republican candidate for Minnesota’s 1st District, campaigns in the Applefest parade in La Crescent on Sept. 16. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Jim Hagedorn, the Republican candidate for Minnesota’s 1st District, campaigns in the Applefest parade in La Crescent on Sept. 16. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

MANKATO, Minn. — With his portrait framed on the wall, President Donald Trump watches over Jim Hagedorn’s subterranean campaign office here.

Trump’s strong showing in this southern Minnesota district is the reason the open seat is one of Republicans’ few pickup opportunities this year.

The president will be in nearby Rochester on Thursday, rallying supporters for the 1st District race Hagedorn has already lost three times before — the last time two years ago, just narrowly. 

Democratic-Farmer-Labor Rep. Tim Walz wasn’t expecting a close race then, but with Trump carrying the district by 15 points, he squeaked past Hagedorn by less than a point. Walz isn’t running for re-election. But he’s on the ballot as the DFL nominee for governor, which is expected to boost Democrat Dan Feehan, the Iraq veteran who’s running to succeed him.

This race will test the endurance of Trump’s appeal in rural areas and the ability of moderate Democratic recruits to win over his supporters. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race a Toss-up.

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The Trump factor

Trump isn’t alone in Hagedorn’s office. A life-sized cardboard cut-out of former President Ronald Reagan is propped up in the corner. 

Hagedorn admires them both for taking office “when the country was in peril,” and he isn’t backing away from Trump at all this election, ending his most recent ad by saying the president “could use a hand.”

Feehan has a different view.

“The most consistent thing I hear from people, especially people who did support the president, is that he needs a check and balance,” he said in an interview last month outside South Central College, where he had been touring technical training facilities with Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton.

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 19: Dan Feehan, right, Democratic candidate for Minnesota's 1st Congressional District, and Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., center, are given a tour of South Central College by Brad Schloesser, dean of agriculture for the Southern Minnesota Center of Agriculture, in Mankato, Minn., on September 19, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Feehan, right, and Rep. Seth Moulton, center, are given a tour of South Central College by Brad Schloesser, dean of agriculture for the Southern Minnesota Center of Agriculture. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The district narrowly backed former President Barack Obama in 2012 and by a slightly larger margin in 2008. To Hagedorn, the rightward shift here is evidence the district has always leaned Republican. (His father, Tom, represented the area in the 1970s and early 1980s when it was part of the old 2nd District.) He rails against the 2010 health care law, federal regulations and especially the “extremist energy policies” that he claims are hurting local farmers. 

There are areas where Hagedorn disagrees with the president — he would have voted against the omnibus spending bill, for example. But on tariffs — a significant issue in this agriculture district — Hagedorn is willing to give Trump some negotiating room even if he doesn’t like tariffs as an economic policy. “I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

Feehan doesn’t talk much about Trump. His ads are about health care and being an “independent voice.” Like many Democrats this cycle trying to run against the current political system, he’s called for new leadership in his party and isn’t accepting corporate PAC money.

His military service has become a central part of his campaign message. Images of him from Iraq — where he served two combat tours — pepper his campaign ads. VoteVets is on air in the district, running ads that tout Walz (without mentioning Feehan) and attack Hagedorn for supporting GOP health care proposals.

Feehan praises Walz and their shared experience in military service and the classroom. He said he has “big shoes to fill,” but makes clear he’s running to bring a new generation to Congress.

“I’m a millennial. I’ve got student loan debt,” the 36-year-old said. “The experience of being as young as I am, relative to the rest of Congress, I think is an underrepresented perspective in Congress today.”

Who’s the local?

Despite not having to run against Walz this year, at least not directly, Hagedorn thinks his ties to the district represent his biggest advantage this time around — his third straight election as the GOP nominee. 

“For the first time, I’m the local favorite,” he said, accusing Feehan of moving to an open seat to run for Congress. 

Feehan grew up in Red Wing, which used to be in the 1st District. He moved away during high school and after serving overseas, worked as the principal deputy assistant Defense secretary for readiness. He moved back to the state in early 2017.  

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 19: Jim Hagedorn, Republican candidate for Minnesota's 1st Congressional District, is interviewed in his campaign office in Mankato, Minn., on September 19, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Hagedorn is embracing President Donald Trump in his campaign. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Hagedorn grew up in the district, but with his father serving in Congress, he graduated from Langley High School in Virginia. He spent much of his career in Washington, first working on the Hill and then at the Treasury Department. He moved back to the district in 2009 but lost the GOP nomination for Congress the following year and found himself back in the D.C. area. In 2013, he moved to the 1st District full-time.

“Dad was a congressman and all that, but we’ve been spending five years on the ground so people got to know us, got to know me personally,” Hagedorn said. 

“Each time we have kind of doubled and tripled our efforts,” he added. He’d banked $850,000 by July 25, the end of the pre-primary reporting period, compared to $209,000 at the same point in 2016. 

He also touts unified support from Republicans at the local, state and national level this fall. (He happens to be engaged to the chairwoman of the state Republican Party.) He handily won a late primary that splintered national Republicans. Female members of Congress backed his opponent, state Sen. Carla Nelson, while some national GOP operatives continue to fret that Hagedorn’s past controversial comments about women and veterans may render him unelectable in November.

Those comments, written on a political blog, have surfaced in all of his previous races and are old news, Hagedorn said.

The National Republican Congressional Committee added him to its Young Guns program for strong recruits after he won his primary in August. The chairman of the NRCC has since said he wasn’t familiar with Hagedorn’s comments.

But that history may still be keeping Hagedorn from getting help flipping this seat. Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC backed by House GOP leadership, is spending nearly $8 million in Minnesota — with half of that in another open-seat district that went for Trump. It’s not spending in the 1st District.

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