Rep. Jim Hagedorn, two-term Minnesota Republican, dies at 59

Hagedorn was a former staffer and had family connections to public service

Jim Hagedorn campaigns in the Applefest parade in La Crescent, Minn., on Sept. 16, 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Jim Hagedorn campaigns in the Applefest parade in La Crescent, Minn., on Sept. 16, 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 18, 2022 at 9:51am

Rep. Jim Hagedorn, a Minnesota Republican serving his second term, has died at age 59.

ABC affiliate KSTP first reported the news Friday morning, followed by statements from his wife, former Minnesota GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan. In 2019, Hagedorn was diagnosed with kidney cancer, for which he was treated but last year announced it had returned.

Hagedorn was candid and outspoken in Congress, which was reminiscent of his past as a conservative blogger. But he was less concerned with making waves in the GOP caucus and saw his role as protecting the livelihoods of rural America and small-business owners.

He was one of two Republicans to flip Democrat-held seats in 2018 when the GOP lost the House, a point of pride for Hagedorn that he said pointed to how the party could return to the majority.

Hagedorn was a product of the Republican Party of the 1980s. He typically invoked two political heroes: his father, former Rep. Thomas Hagedorn; and the late President Ronald Reagan. Hagedorn stayed rooted in GOP politics after his father’s service ended in 1983, working as a legislative staffer for Rep. Arlan Stangeland from 1984 to 1991.

He sat on the Agriculture Committee, a role that he gave him opportunities for bipartisanship. That was one of his takeaways, he said, from working under Stangeland and seeing his father in Congress — both made a habit of working with Democrats on points where it mattered.

“What they taught me is Ag is one of those committees where you should all work together,” Hagedorn told CQ Roll Call in 2019. “For instance, in Minnesota we don’t have cotton farmers, and in some places in Texas they may not have sugar beet farmers, but we want them all to be successful no matter where they live.”

In his freshman term, he teamed with Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar to introduce legislation aimed at providing safety best practices for agriculture workers during the pandemic, although the Agriculture Committee never took up the bill.

Hagedorn also found support in both parties when championing money for medical research, an issue that was personal to him.

He disclosed in February 2020 that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer and had been receiving treatment at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, located in his district in Rochester. He outlined the extent of the disease’s damage on his body and how scientific research helped him in an Appropriations Committee members’ day hearing in May 2021.

“My doctor told me … if I hadn’t been diagnosed and treated with something that worked in a short period of time, I’d have been dead over a year ago,” Hagedorn said. He received immunotherapy and eventually had a kidney removed, calling the work that went into keeping him alive a “mini-miracle.”

“I fight cancer each and every day,” he said. “Cures are coming to market every day. The basic research is being done. Incredible things are on the horizon and people — just encourage them to keep fighting. We’re going to stand with them and we’re going to do it together.”

Hagedorn announced in July 2021 that his cancer had returned.

An outspoken conservative

Born in Blue Earth, Minn., on Aug. 4, 1962, Hagedorn spent much of his early childhood and early career in Washington when his father was serving in Congress.

After working on Capitol Hill in Stangeland’s office, Hagedorn was the director for legislative and public affairs for the Treasury Department’s Financial Management Service and the congressional affairs officer for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

He didn’t shy away from taking credit for Congress’ work during his time in Washington. “I moved several bills through the Congress to reform government, to downsize government, to make the government more responsive to the people,” he said.

Hagedorn in particular took pride in his work on welfare issues as a congressional staffer, including legislation that required able-bodied welfare recipients to work for benefits. Even though his bills did not receive floor votes at the time, the measures would eventually be taken up by the Republican-led House under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

He first ran for Minnesota’s 1st District in 2010 but lost the Republican primary. He tried again in 2014, winning the Republican nomination but losing to Democrat Tim Walz in the general election by 9 points.

During that campaign, disparaging comments about women, Native Americans and gay people from Hagedorn’s early-2000s blog surfaced. He once wrote that Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington were “undeserving bimbos in tennis shoes.”

When Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain picked former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate during the 2008 presidential campaign, Hagedorn wrote: “On behalf of all red-blooded American men: THANK YOU SENATOR McCAIN, SARAH’S HOT!”

In 2016, Hagedorn again won the GOP primary and came within a point of defeating Walz in the general election. The district had returned Walz to office despite voting strongly for Donald Trump in the presidential election.

Walz left Congress to make a successful bid for governor in 2018. Hagedorn ran for the open seat, narrowly defeating former Army officer and Obama Defense Department official Dan Feehan by fewer than 2,000 votes. He beat Feehan in a 2020 rematch by 3 points.

Hagedorn’s father was not his only familial connection to politics. He married Carnahan just before being sworn in to Congress. She led the state GOP until her ouster in August 2021 due to her ties to a donor who was indicted on federal sex-trafficking charges.

Hagedorn had his own issues with ethics through his second term. The House Ethics Committee announced it was investigating him in September 2021 without elaborating on the details of the probe. Reporting from The Minnesota Reformer outlined that Hagedorn had a pattern of questionable spending, including alleged official expenses on services from vendors owned by a member of his staff.