OWATONNA, Minn. – U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn’s town hall meeting was about halfway through Monday when things started to get testy.
“You’re not listening to us!” shouted Carolyn Dobler, a retired Gustavus professor and DFL activist from St. Peter, Minn.
“Of course I’m listening to you,” replied the first-term Republican. “We have different philosophies on what should be done.”
Six months into a two-year term, Hagedorn has shown no inclination to mute his conservative views or downplay his allegiance to President Donald Trump — despite a slim victory in 2018 in a swing congressional district. The Republican from Blue Earth, Minn., has emerged as a top target for Democrats in 2020, with state and national party groups highlighting votes and public comments he has made that repeatedly put him on the same page as the president.
Democrats see Hagedorn’s embrace of Trump in southern Minnesota as a potential vulnerability. Hagedorn sees it as nothing but an asset. “I’ve said repeatedly since 2016 that of course I support Donald Trump, because I felt like if he’d lost, we’d have lost the country,” Hagedorn said in an interview Tuesday. “Hillary [Clinton] would have stacked the Supreme Court with radicals who would have taken away our individual liberties. In the next go-round, you’re going to see nothing different.”
In raw political terms, Hagedorn’s bet on Trump makes sense. The president carried southern Minnesota’s First District by 15 percentage points in 2016.
But that belies the evolving nature of the district, which stretches across the southern tier of the state, from Wisconsin to South Dakota. In addition to large swaths of conservative farm country, the district includes more liberal cities like Rochester, Mankato, Winona and Worthington.
Former President Barack Obama carried the district twice. And last year, even as Hagedorn beat his Democratic opponent by less than a percentage point, it went to DFL Gov. Tim Walz, the district’s former congressman, and to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
“I think both sides can make a good case in terms of which direction the district is going,” said former GOP Rep. Gil Gutknecht, whom Walz unseated in 2006. “Rochester is becoming more of a city, that’s true, and it’s leaning a little more blue. But the reason Trump did as well as he did is because the rural parts are becoming even more conservative.”
Next year, Hagedorn is likely to face a rematch with Democrat Dan Feehan. Last year, Hagedorn won by just 1,315 votes out of nearly 292,000 cast.
“He’s been extreme both in his voting record and extreme in his behavior,” said Feehan, an Army veteran and former Department of Defense official. “He’s found a way to side with President Donald Trump a vast majority of the time, in a way that shows no independence of thought or consideration for the district that he represents.”
Gutknecht said he thinks Hagedorn has positioned himself well to win re-election. “With Trump on the ballot, I think the wind will be at Jim’s back,” he said.
By tying his fortunes to Trump, Hagedorn is betting that southern Minnesota’s farm economy can withstand pressures brought on in part by some of Trump’s international trade moves.
“How that affects the economy in southern Minnesota will say a lot about how Trump does in southern Minnesota next year,” said Aaron Miller, a Republican activist from Byron, Minn., who lost the GOP congressional primary to Hagedorn in 2016.
Hagedorn has lined up behind Trump’s trade agenda, which has cost U.S. farmers dearly in lost exports — losses the administration has sought to make up with $16 billion in tariff relief payments. Hagedorn also has been a vocal advocate of congressional approval for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, which has been stalled in Congress.
“If they don’t give us a vote on this in the House, we’re not going to get it, and that’s going to stall momentum for subsequent trade deals with China and Japan,” Hagedorn said. At the town hall in Owatonna, Hagedorn said he supports Trump on China even if that puts local farmers in the crossfire.
It’s also put Hagedorn in the crossfire of Democratic activists who have swarmed to his district offices and several town hall meetings.
Hagedorn recently banned members of the liberal group Indivisible from his district offices, prompting criticism from activists who said they wanted to register their views.
Dobler of St. Peter, who is involved with Indivisible, said the move emboldened Hagedorn’s critics. “People were getting calls saying how can I join this?” she said.
But he said he’s making himself accessible to all constituents through a summer tour of town halls and other events where he frequently echoes Trump in remarks about immigration and the southern border.
During one June town hall in Rochester, his response to a question about the detentions of migrant children angered some constituents and made national headlines:
“The people that are there, they can leave,” he said, overlooking that the children are being locked up in federal facilities. “Nobody is holding them,” he added.
Hagedorn later tried to clarify: “They didn’t have to show up. We didn’t bring them.”
While some of his comments have mobilized his opponents, supporters say the congressman is on the right track.
Linda Moore, a 69-year-old Republican from Faribault, Minn., praised Hagedorn for standing up for the Constitution and “the American values of our Founding Fathers.” Moore, a part-time sociology professor, said she agreed with Hagedorn’s vocal support for the president’s policies on immigration and a host of other issues.
“The Democrats are moving toward socialism,” she said. “They’re going so far to the left I think they’re falling off the sanity cliff.”
Sparring with his critics, Hagedorn picked up on that theme Monday, blaming Democrats for the nation’s woes and warning that they want to “transform America into some socialist state.”