Opinion editor's note: Editorial endorsements represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom. The board bases its endorsement decisions on candidate interviews and other reporting.

If there were an award for the most civil debate this Minnesota election season, a top contender would be the Oct. 13 forum in Mankato featuring the two candidates vying to represent southern Minnesota in the U.S. House.

Rep. Brad Finstad, a Republican, won a First District special election earlier this year after the death of Rep. Jim Hagedorn, a Republican who was in the middle of a second term. Finstad, 46, is running to keep the seat and faces Jeff Ettinger, a Democrat and retired Hormel Foods CEO.

The debate wasn't a clash. Instead, it was a respectful exchange, even when policy differences surfaced. This reflects well on both candidates and inspires confidence in the district's representation, no matter who wins next month.

But the Star Tribune Editorial Board believes Ettinger, 64, is the strongest candidate in the race, particularly in a district with a long history of switching back and forth between sending Democrats and Republicans to Washington, D.C.

Ettinger's policy positions, experience and quiet-yet-authoritative demeanor would best represent a district that defies red or blue categorization. He's a self-described moderate who is running as a business-friendly Democrat — one with deep knowledge of the agricultural industry powering the region's economy.

Finstad, his opponent, has impressive agricultural bona fides as a family farmer who served as President Donald Trump's state director for USDA Rural Development in Minnesota. He also served in the Minnesota Legislature. Ettinger's stellar tenure at Hormel gives him the advantage, however.

As Hormel's CEO from 2005 to 2016, Ettinger successfully navigated workforce readiness and shortages, rising health care costs, as well the impact of trade deals on the company. Under his leadership, Hormel adapted "to shifting consumer tastes, nearly doubling its sales and more than quadrupling its market value," according to a Star Tribune report.

Ettinger's nuanced positions on critical issues reflect his deep leadership experience and, importantly, a candidate who eschews talking points that would pander to the Democratic base. For example, Ettinger does not support "single payer" health care, which would enroll all Americans into a government-run program like Medicare.

Instead, Ettinger acknowledges government has a vital role in health care, with Medicare the mainstay program for seniors, Medicaid serving the poor and long-term care residents, and the Veterans Affairs network providing specialty care for military men and women.

He would protect these programs while advocating for pragmatic improvements. Evidence includes Ettinger's support for reforms in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act that would cap out-of-pocket prescription costs for Medicare's elderly enrollees, allow the program to negotiate the cost of some prescription drugs, and limit insulin charges to $35 a month, among other welcome changes.

In contrast, Finstad voted against the Inflation Reduction Act in August after winning the special election. That disappointing "no" vote put party politics above the needs of his elderly constituents.

Another reason Ettinger won the Editorial Board's endorsement is that he's raising the alarm about political extremism. The violent storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, helped spur Ettinger to run. The nation needs more lawmakers who understand democracy's fragility at this moment. Ettinger takes this responsibility seriously, a fundamental first step to enacting protective measures.

In the Oct. 13 debate, Finstad admirably spoke of the need to "create relationships" and dial back heated rhetoric in politics. Yet he declined the Editorial Board's invitation to participate in an endorsement interview.

That leaves questions unanswered about Finstad's detailed stance on abortion. His website states: "We must protect human life no matter how small." Would he support a national abortion ban, for example? What about exceptions for women's health or crime victims? Ettinger, in contrast, has said, "As a member of Congress, I will lead the fight to pass legislation codifying Roe v. Wade into national law, so that no state can block a woman's right to choose."

Ettinger is a longtime Austin resident who continues to play an active role in his community. He and his wife have sponsored college scholarships for 30 Austin graduates. In addition, Ettinger chairs the Hormel Foundation, which provides grants to local nonprofits and the Austin-based Hormel Institute, a biomedical research center.

Also on the ballot are Brian Abrahamson of the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party of Minnesota, and Richard Reisdorf of the Legal Marijuana Now Party.

Southern Minnesota's First District is home to prosperous farms, thriving small cities, well-known colleges, renewable energy ventures and, of course, a world-class medical center. Ettinger is a proven leader and the best candidate to represent all who call it home.

Editorial Board members are David Banks, Jill Burcum, Scott Gillespie, Denise Johnson, Patricia Lopez, John Rash and D.J. Tice. Star Tribune Opinion staff members Maggie Kelly and Elena Neuzil also contribute, and Star Tribune Publisher and CEO Michael J. Klingensmith serves as an adviser to the board.