Pacing the floor of a gun club tucked along a dirt road in southern Minnesota farm country, Republican congressman Jim Hagedorn issued a dire warning about the times we live in.
Lawlessness and calls to defund the police in Minneapolis, he said, could spread south to rural towns like Le Sueur, Minn., if Democrats take charge. “When we say, ‘get off my property, you’re threatening me,’ what do they do?” Hagedorn asked a crowd of two dozen Republican activists sipping cups of Pepsi behind the bar. “They come take your gun, probably put you in jail, and the bad guys who are doing it are let out.”
Days later in Mankato, Democratic challenger Dan Feehan mingled in a crowd gathered for the city’s annual LGBTQ Pride march. Wearing rainbow masks and Black Lives Matter T-shirts, marchers said they were worried about a reality that’s already upon them, where a loss of decency under President Donald Trump is compounded by the pain of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“People feel like they’ve been quit on,” said Feehan, his words muffled through his red Homer Hanky face mask. “They feel like Washington, D.C., quit on them in the middle of multiple crises layered on top of each other and they are desperate for change.”
The battle for Minnesota’s sprawling First Congressional District has become a microcosm of the broader 2020 election, a campaign in which anxiety over the pandemic and ongoing civil unrest across the country have ratcheted up the stakes for voters. Hagedorn, a first-term Republican in Congress, is facing a closely watched rematch against Feehan, who came within 1,300 votes of winning two years ago.
Stretching across Minnesota’s border with Iowa from South Dakota to Wisconsin, the district is largely rural and conservative. It backed Trump four years ago by 15 percentage points. But it’s also home to fast-growing and diversifying regional centers like Rochester and Mankato, which helped send former DFL Rep. Tim Walz to Congress.
With its independent voting streak, the district is now a top target for Democratic groups bullish about a second shot for Feehan, an Iraq war veteran and former teacher who has a strikingly similar background to Walz, now Minnesota’s governor.
Meanwhile, conservatives in the district are coalescing around Hagedorn, a former congressional aide running as a staunch Trump ally. While some Republicans in Congress have sought to distance themselves from some of the president’s more provocative statements on race, protesters and Confederate statues, Hagedorn was the only member of the Minnesota congressional delegation to vote in July against a ban on Confederate statues sent by the states to the U.S. Capitol. He said those decisions should be left up to the states.
Hagedorn sees himself as a perfect fit for the district, noting that he ran to be a “conservative reinforcement” for Trump. After three campaigns in the district, he was elected two years ago and is now running on a record he says brought Paycheck Protection Program loans to small businesses during the pandemic, prioritized CARES Act funding to preserve rural hospitals, and helped champion the passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement to expand agricultural exports.
“That’s why we’re going to win up and down the ticket this fall,” Hagedorn said. “Because we’re going to run on our achievements and what we want for the future of this country.”
But the pandemic, combined with the Twin Cities rioting that followed George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, has altered the playing field in the final stretch. Farmers in the district, already buffeted by international trade battles under Trump, are now struggling amid widespread COVID-19 restaurant and business restrictions.
Feehan argues that the Trump administration has been absent in its COVID response and that people are struggling to connect with resources to help them weather the pandemic. At a time when people need health care more than ever, he cites Hagedorn’s support for a Trump-backed lawsuit to invalidate the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.
“It’s the compounding of the pandemic, the compounding of an economic crisis,” Feehan said. “People are jobless or don’t have health care that they did six months ago, and that’s all coming to roost.”
Feehan also has cited recent allegations about Hagedorn’s congressional office’s spending — higher than any other member of Congress in the first quarter of this year. An internal review found connections between companies hired for constituent mail work and former and current paid Hagedorn staffers. Hagedorn said he’s taken action to install internal controls to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
For voters like Wade Davis, a professor of business law at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Feehan is a better fit for the changing district and the right pick in a year where more than just pocketbook issues are on the line.
“This is a move toward middle ground and human decency in this election,” said Davis. “This district is rural, pretty conservative and ag-based, but there’s also a number of universities and an industrial base, and I feel like Feehan captures the sensibility of the middle ground.”
But Hagedorn, like Trump, sees the district as fertile ground for a law and order message in response to the violence that has erupted in Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., Kenosha, Wis., and other cities.
New Ulm resident George Smith said he agrees with Hagedorn politically and has found him to be accessible during his first term in Congress. But he said “law and order” is the No. 1 motivating issue for him on the ballot this fall.
“I want law and order,” said Smith, donning a MAGA hat and holding an American flag in one hand and a Trump flag in another during a recent GOP bus tour through southern Minnesota. “I’m a 20-year veteran. I think Trump is the best thing the military has ever seen. I’m voting Republican, from the City Council all the way on up.”
Minnesota GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan, who was on the bus tour, described “chaos and anarchy” in cities like Minneapolis and Portland. She told activists that she encountered protesters who spit at people leaving Trump’s nomination speech at the White House in August.
“I just realized that night that if we don’t hold this country for the president for another four years, that is what we are going to be, what we will be living with in America,” said Carnahan, who is married to Hagedorn.
In a recent virtual event with members of law enforcement and others who work in criminal justice, Feehan pushed back on the law and order message, calling it a disingenuous presentation of “false choices.” He said reform in the criminal justice system and racial equity can exist in conjunction with a “policing system that’s set up for success through our system of laws.”
Roger Peterson, a retired former Rochester police officer who served two decades as chief, said he’s frustrated with the way the national political conversation over policing has been framed. “Either you can support the police or you can support human rights, but you don’t do both. Somehow they can’t coexist,” he lamented. “That’s the kind of thinking that invades this discussion and people are feeling threatened. And unfortunately fear works in a campaign.”