1st district race may be Trump test; Contest expected to draw national money, attention

By Mankato Free Press - MANKATO — Last fall, the voters of southern Minnesota’s 1st District picked Donald Trump by a whopping 15 percentage points over Hillary Clinton. The Republican running for the seat, Jim Hagedorn, lost by less than a percentage point.

Now, with Rep. Tim Walz running for governor, Republicans from Washington, D.C., to Mankato see a prime opportunity to re-take a seat they haven’t won since 2004.

“Republicans are definitely expecting to win,” said Jeremy Munson, a rural Lake Crystal man who chairs the 1st District Republicans. “This will be one of the races that will bring national attention to our district.”

According to one top political election analysis, the Cook Political Report, southern Minnesota’s seat, the 1st District, is the second-most Republican district in the country now represented by a Democrat. In other words, it’s just about the lowest-hanging fruit for Republicans and their donors.

The National Republican Congressional Committee included Minnesota’s 1st District in its 36-seat list of Democratic targets.

Meanwhile, Democrats concede they have a fight ahead of them but say they’re fired up to deal Trump a defeat.

“I would agree this district is a close one,” said Jason Teiken, who chairs the Democrats’ committee for the Mankato area’s state Senate seat. He said Trump’s large margin of victory gave him some pause, but added that Walz’s six consecutive victories show a Democrat is capable of keeping the seat.

Herb Kroon, chair of the Nicollet County DFL, said the enthusiasm from his party brings to mind the 2006 election, when anti-Bush sentiment helped Walz to a victory. But Democrats need a message beyond opposition to Trump, he said.

“We need to say ‘This is what we stand for’ and ‘This is who we are,’” Kroon said.

A growing field

There are now five Democrats lined up to replace Walz: Former state Sen. Vicki Jensen of Owatonna, John Austinson of Byron, Johnny Akzam of Rochester, Colin Minehart of Albert Lea and Dan Feehan of North Mankato.

In what may be a sign of which candidate poses the largest threat to Republicans, it was Feehan who Munson, the Republican 1st District chair, chose to criticize.

He said Feehan “parachuted in” from Washington, hand-picked by Democrats to be the “presumptive nominee.”

Munson also offered a preview of what may become a tactic to weaken Feehan, who will announce his candidacy July 10, by exploiting the division between the moderate and liberal wings of the Democrats.

“The people in our district who voted for Bernie Sanders aren’t going to appreciate candidates getting shoved down their throats,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Democratic field may grow further.

Jim Hepworth of rural Lake Crystal, vice chair of the DFL 1st Congressional District, said nine other candidates have expressed an interest in meeting with a candidate search committee. Hepworth chairs the committee, which has been meeting with prospective candidates to let them know what it takes to run a campaign for Congress.

Candidates fired up about the issues or Trump may not be as excited to learn they would be expected to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.

He sees the Trump win as an anomaly.

“The district isn’t as conservative as a lot of people would like to think,” he said.

However, Nicollet County Republican chair Peter Trocke said the 1st District “should always lean Republican.” The Cook Political Report lists it as Republican by a margin of 5 percentage points.

“In my opinion, I don’t think the Democrats have come up with a decent candidate,” he said. “They feel they can’t hold the seat, maybe.”

With his knowledge of the district and close finish last fall, Hagedorn is clearly the front-runner. Another feather in his cap: Hagedorn said he has raised $221,000 in the first quarter of 2017 —63 percent of what he spent during the entire 2016 campaign.

Hagedorn said he would have won last fall’s race with a better-funded campaign.

“If I had another $50,000 to $100,000 to pound on broadcast TV, I think we could’ve easily turned 61 votes per county,” he said. In the 21-county district, flipping 1,281 Walz votes would have won him the race.