26 February 2022
ST. PETER, MINN. – GOP Rep. Jim Hagedorn’s death is upending the political dynamics in southern Minnesota, and Republicans and Democrats are scrambling to prepare for a heated campaign to win what was once considered a crucial battleground.
As mourning continues, Republicans are treading lightly while also not shying away from the significance of keeping the seat in GOP hands. Democrats are determined to flip the seat after losing it in 2018, even as the party contends with sagging poll numbers for Joe Biden’s presidency and their own struggles in rural areas like the First Congressional District.
“It makes you a little nervous because it’s like opening the barn door and letting the horses out, so to speak,” Yvonne Simon, the chair of the Blue Earth County Republicans, said about the now open seat.
Tuesday marks the start of the two-week filing period for a special election in August to fill the remainder of Hagedorn’s current term, meaning potential candidates have to decide quickly.
Despite the difficult national political climate going against them, Democrats see an opportunity. DFLer Tim Walz held the seat for over a decade, narrowly overcoming a challenge from Hagedorn in 2016 before opting to run for governor in 2018. Hagedorn won the district by less than 1 percentage point that same year, before taking the contest by three points in 2020 as a third-party candidate drew nearly 6% of the vote.
“If the Republicans nominate a far right extreme candidate, they’re creating a huge opening for the DFL to pick that seat up easily in a special election,” said Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin.
With plenty of uncertainty about what the field of candidates will look like, residents in the First are still figuring out what Hagedorn’s death — and the simultaneous upheaval of redistricting — mean for their district.
Scott Dobie’s family roots run deep beneath the fields and towns of southern Minnesota, and he’s watched it change from inside the century-old Main Street clothing store where he’s made his livelihood.
A two-time Trump voter and supporter of Hagedorn’s — the congressman stopped in about a year ago to buy shirts — Dobie, a 69-year-old Mankato resident who’s owned Nutter Clothing Co. for 38 years, defines himself as a conservative, but not necessarily a Republican. And when the First District elects someone new to represent them in Washington, he said he hopes they’re willing to work on both sides of the aisle.
“I’d like to see somebody that truly wouldn’t vote party lines,” Dobie said. “I just think that it isn’t this way or the highway. One side isn’t always right, and somewhere you’ve got to blend it to make it work.”
Heidi Tibbetts, a Mankato resident who was working behind a shop counter, said she wants the upcoming elections to fill the seat “to bring unity,” and for “both sides to come together, and work on compromising together.”
“People are really tired of the divisiveness,” she said.
Her co-worker, St. Peter resident Nancy Kapernick, said Hagedorn has been a polarizing and protested figure in this college town, where the population is diversifying and residents recently elected a woman mayor for the first time in a century.
“There’s been a lot of contention around him and his seat, depending on which side of the fence you’re on,” Kapernick said.
Both parties have two chances at the seat in the coming months. While the August special election to fill the final months of Hagedorn’s term will use the district’s old lines, November’s midterm election race will use the new boundaries decided by the courts as a result of the once-a-decade redistricting process.
The new maps unveiled just days before Hagedorn’s death shifted the political dynamics of the district only slightly and still show Republicans with an advantage in what has been a hotly contested part of the state.
Richard Painter, an ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush White House who ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Sen. Tina Smith in a 2018 Democratic primary, has said he’s seeking the DFL’s endorsement in the special and midterm contests. Richard DeVoe, a Red Wing bookstore owner, is entering the Democratic field as well. Democrat Dan Feehan, who lost to Hagedorn in 2018 and 2020, could also try again for the seat.
On the Republican side, state Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, filed federal candidacy paperwork Friday in the race.
“It’s going to be important for us to keep the seat to win the majority,” Munson said in an interview earlier in the week. “Obviously this is going to be watched nationally to see how much a close district improves.”
Hagedorn’s wife, Jennifer Carnahan, is viewed as a potential candidate but it is unclear if she will run. “I’m focused right now on planning the funerals and doing everything I can to memorialize my husband and that’s where my head’s at,” Carnahan said.
A Carnahan candidacy would have to overcome concerns from within the GOP after she was forced out as the Republican state party chair following scandal less than a year ago.
Hagedorn was a vocal ally of Donald Trump even though the elections that sent the Minnesota congressman to Washington were close contests. With the former president remaining influential in the GOP, appealing to Trump’s base in the region is likely to be crucial for congressional hopefuls on the right.
“Any candidate who runs in CD1 is going to have to embrace the Trump Republicans,” said Jerod Spilman, the most recent chair of Minnesota’s First Congressional District GOP.
But not having Trump front and center could help the left in its efforts to regain momentum in the district given the GOP turnout boost offered by the former president.
“Trump isn’t on the ballot, so those people may not come out,” said Mark Liebow, a local DFL leader in the Rochester area. “And the other thing is whoever runs on the Republican side for the congressional seat isn’t going to have Hagedorn’s name recognition.”
Democrats also have to navigate public perceptions of Biden’s presidency after a difficult few months for the White House. If Democrats have a chance at winning the First District either this year or in the years to come, the counties of Olmsted, Nicollet, Winona and Blue Earth will play a major part. Biden won those areas in 2020 while still losing the old First District by 10 percentage points.
“The image of the Biden presidency isn’t helping Democrats right now,” said state Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, who noted that Democrats need to get votes from the middle “and not just run as pure DFL.”
But even as the GOP balances grieving Hagedorn with looking toward the future, there doesn’t appear to be much worry about the seat slipping from Republican control.
“I lost a very good friend, and the First District lost a good friend, and we’ll get through the funeral,” said state Rep. Greg Davids, a longtime Republican legislator from Preston. “And then we have to do our job as far as getting a replacement so that the people of the First District have representation. Sometimes it seems kind of cold, but this is the way it works.”