WASHINGTON – First-term congressmen Jim Hagedorn and Pete Stauber both beat Democrats last year to pick up greater Minnesota seats in congressional districts that President Donald Trump carried in 2016.
Since then, they've assumed different political postures while mostly voting the same as members of the House's Republican minority.
And on a handful of key votes, Stauber joined small factions of Republicans who peeled off to vote with Democrats in the starkly divided House. The northeastern Minnesota congressman is quick to assert political independence, while southern Minnesota's Hagedorn is unabashed about what he wants to do in Washington.
"I ran to be a conservative reinforcement in Congress," Hagedorn said. "And I ran to make sure the shared ideas and policies that the president and I happen to support, that I do my best to move those forward, to be part of a coalition to get those through."
Stauber, meanwhile, voted with Democrats on a resolution in support of the Affordable Care Act, for a pay raise for federal workers, and for the Violence Against Women Act despite opposition by the National Rifle Association. He also backed a resolution condemning government shutdowns.
Hagedorn and Minnesota's other Republican, Rep. Tom Emmer, did not support any of those measures. Asked about those votes, Stauber quoted a high-profile Republican critic of Trump.
"I have said I will never blindly follow any political party," Stauber said. "[Former Ohio] Governor John Kasich said this, and it resonates with me: The Republican Party is my vehicle; it is not my master. So I have to vote my district and my conscience."
Prospects in 2020
Next year's re-election bids by the two GOP newcomers will test their appeal in a volatile political landscape. Hagedorn is positioning himself as a Republican who embraces the party's message under Trump, while Stauber runs as a Republican who talks frequently of bipartisanship and working together.
National Democrats see a more tempting target in Hagedorn, who beat DFL-endorsed Dan Feehan in 2018 by just over 1,300 votes out of more than 290,000 cast. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has put Hagedorn on its first list of 2020 targets.
"He is the rubber stamp I was worried he would become," said Feehan, an Army veteran and Obama-era Defense Department official who said he's "strongly considering" another run next year.
While Feehan eyes another challenge, Stauber's 2018 rival — former state Rep. Joe Radinovich — said he's not likely to try again. He said he thinks Stauber's nods to the middle are more rhetorical than substantive but that he's nonetheless shown good political instincts.
"I think that Pete is obviously playing it safe," Radinovich said. "I don't think that's the approach that best benefits people in the Eighth [Congressional District], but I think it's the approach that will give him the best chance at re-election now and into the future."
A former Duluth police officer and county commissioner who lives in Hermantown, Stauber has been busy on the legislative front: He was the lead Republican cosponsor on a bill that Trump signed in March to expand and improve the North Country National Scenic Trail from New York to North Dakota. Parts of the trail in Minnesota run through wetlands; the legislation allows those areas to be circumvented by linking it with existing trails.
"Tourism and recreation, hiking, biking and walking are a passion for many in our district," Stauber said.
The eight bills Stauber has introduced so far cover issues related to small business, transportation and natural resources. All but two have at least one Democratic cosponsor. He is working with his Minnesota freshman colleague, Democratic Rep. Angie Craig, to boost federal funding for special education. Both are parents of special-needs children; a conversation about that experience on a train ride to a freshman orientation session in Virginia hatched their collaboration.
Hagedorn has not yet introduced any bills. He has signed on as a cosponsor to more than 100 bills, including some introduced by Democrats.
"We're in the minority, and I'm new. To get a bill together and do it right, sometimes you just take a little extra time," Hagedorn said. He described what he intends to be his focus: "How do you take power from Washington and give it back to the people, and some of that is how do you make sure people have the flexibility to use their money how they see fit — not the way the government tells them to."
Support from and for Trump
Trump held political rallies with Hagedorn and Stauber in 2018, and both have supported the president on immigration, trade and tax policy. Hagedorn secured a coveted seat on the House Agriculture Committee, an important position for his agricultural district. He was recently quoted in a White House news release in support of Trump's agricultural policies, which include billions of dollars in payouts to farmers hurt by reduced trade.
Hagedorn, a former U.S. Treasury official and congressional aide from Blue Earth, said he knows many farmers in his district are in "a tough financial spot." Trump's international trade moves have added another challenge to farmers already beset by bad weather, low commodity prices and rising costs.
Hagedorn supports Trump's hawkish trade moves against China, recounting how he told the president personally that nearly all the farmers he talks to in the district tell him Trump is doing the right thing even if it means short-term pain for them personally.
On Friday, Trump announced he would soon institute a 5% tariff on Mexican goods until the country does something to slow illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border. Those tariffs could rise to as much as 25% without a response, Trump said.
That complicates prospects for the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which farm groups say is desperately needed. Hagedorn has been the Minnesota delegation's most vocal backer of the trade deal. In an interview before Trump's Mexico announcement, he said that "we don't want more tariffs."
Stauber also strongly backs passage of the USMCA and has backed Trump on trade. Neither his nor Hagedorn's office responded to follow-up requests for response to the planned Mexico tariff.
"We need to know what the end of the runway is on some of these trade deals," said Kevin Paap, a southern Minnesota corn and soybean farmer who's president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau.
The National Republican Congressional Committee is publicly confident about re-election prospects for Hagedorn and Stauber, neither of whom made the group's list of most vulnerable GOP incumbents. The group's gamble is that Republicans who won in heavily pro-Trump districts in 2018 will do even better when they're sharing the ballot with the president next year.