Owatonna, Minn. – Increasingly sharp rhetoric from the candidates and visits by high-profile allies underscore the closeness and national significance of the U.S. House race in southern Minnesota’s First District.
President Donald Trump was in Rochester, the district’s largest city, last week to support Republican Jim Hagedorn and other GOP candidates. The next day, Democrat Dan Feehan campaigned in Courtland and New Ulm with U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, who’s running for governor and has held the First District seat for 12 years.
The race has grown more heated, with Hagedorn saying Feehan would be a roadblock to Trump’s agenda, while Feehan is running a new TV ad to object to depictions of his military career by a GOP group.
The race will test Trump’s staying power in a mostly rural district that the president won 53 to 38 percent in 2016, and the outcome here and in several other Minnesota swing districts will help determine whether Republicans retain control of the U.S. House. Democrats must gain 23 seats to take over and try to block key elements of the president’s agenda.
A debate at the Owatonna Country Club last week showcased the intensity of the contest, which is rated a toss-up by national political oddsmakers.
“If people like Dan win,” Hagedorn said, “there’s going to be resistance, there’s going to be impeachment” and new efforts to restrict gun ownership, open U.S. borders and institute socialized medicine.
Feehan, an Army veteran who served two combat tours in Iraq, challenged portrayals of his military career by Hagedorn and in a TV ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee, which said Feehan wants to “shortchange American troops.”
“I have done what it takes to keep this country safe,” Feehan said in the debate. In a TV ad released Tuesday, Feehan called it “disrespectful” for “someone who has never served a day in uniform” to question veterans’ commitment to security.
Answering a question about immigration in the debate, Feehan repeated that he’s committed to security and added that communities are strongest when no one lives in fear.
“He talked a lot, but he didn’t say anything,” Hagedorn said in response. “Does he support Walz’s position to make Minnesota a sanctuary state? … He didn’t say yes or no.”
Hagedorn opposes sanctuary status for states and cities, in which local law enforcement does not carry out federal immigration law. He also backs Trump’s call for a wall along the Mexico border.
Feehan said later in the debate that his rival was “embracing the idea that hyper-partisanship is what works in Washington.”
Both candidates spent time in Washington’s bureaucracy: Hagedorn worked in the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and Feehan was an acting assistant secretary of defense for readiness issues.
One flash point in the race is their claim to Minnesota roots. Both were born in the state — Feehan in St. Paul, Hagedorn in Blue Earth — but attended college and worked elsewhere. This is Hagedorn’s fourth campaign for the seat, while Feehan is a first-time candidate.
At a Chamber of Commerce breakfast last Friday in Winona, Hagedorn said of his opponent, “He’s not from here. … He was sent out here by [House Democratic Leader Nancy] Pelosi and [former President Barack] Obama to try to hang on to this district for the Democrat Party.”
Feehan’s rebuttal is laid out in a TV ad that says Hagedorn spent decades “working in a comfortable job” in Washington. In contrast, it asserts, Feehan “chose a road of service, joining the Army after 9/11.”
Another Republican campaign spending group, the House GOP leadership’s super PAC, launched a TV ad on Wednesday that tried to tie Feehan to Pelosi, saying they “would take us backward.”
Hagedorn is banking on support for Trump in the 21-county district to bolster his chances. He told his Winona audience about riding in “the beast” — the nickname for the fortified presidential limousine — and promised to be “a conservative reinforcement” for Trump in Congress.
In the Owatonna debate, he distanced himself from the president on trade. “I’m not a fan of tariffs,” he said. The district’s farmers have been hurt by retaliatory tariffs on pork, corn and soybeans.
Feehan and Walz visited farms owned by Tim Waibel and Reuben Bode outside Courtland on Friday, then stopped at Oak Hills Living Center in New Ulm.
Before taking questions from doctors, dentists, nurses and administrators in New Ulm, Feehan said, “Either a leader knows what they’re talking about or they know where to turn if they don’t. I’m here to listen.” He and Walz got an earful about staff shortages, competitive pay and costs.
At Bode’s pig farm, environmental regulations were the top topic. As they ate pizza at the Waibel farm, Walz and Feehan were asked about health care and Social Security.
Standing in Waibel’s yard, the candidates said they don’t think Trump’s critiques of Democrats will change votes by energizing Republicans.
“They’ve laid out their vision on how they want things to go,” Walz said. “That opens up a blank palette for us to say how we want it to go, and you’re going to hear a different type of rhetoric.”
Asked about Hagedorn’s contention that he supports socialized medicine, Feehan said, “Every time he speaks, the sense that I get is he’s only interested in representing some people. He’s only interested in being a rubber stamp, an extension of the Trump administration.”