By Heather J. Carlson, Post Bulletin - While some Republican congressional candidates are seeking to distance themselves from Donald Trump, 1st District candidate Jim Hagedorn is embracing the party's presidential candidate.
"We're kind of running on similar themes, and that's the choice. It's a big contrast. Liberal Democrats, four more years of what's been going on with Obama or big, bold change in Washington. And I think people are ready for the big, bold change," Hagedorn said.
The Blue Earth Republican is facing off for the second time against 1st District DFL Rep. Tim Walz in November. Two years ago, Walz beat Hagedorn with 54 percent of the vote.
On the campaign trail, the issues being stressed by Hagedorn mirror the Trump play book. Hagedorn stresses the need to secure the nation's borders and combat "Islamic supremacists" by temporarily blocking new refugees from coming into the country. On Facebook, he has dubbed Walz the "Open Borders Congressman." During parades, his supporters hold signs that read "Give terrorists last rites — not Miranda rights," and "Where's Walzdo?" — a play off the "Where's Waldo" children's book character.
So is Hagedorn taking his cues from Trump? No, according to the candidate. Rather, these are issues he has been talking about for years.
"I didn't make any calculations (on supporting Trump) based on how it helps or hurts. I just did what I think was right and, frankly, considering he and I are running on similar issues, it would be ridiculous of me not to support him," Hagedorn said.
To back or not back Trump?
While Hagedorn is all in for Trump, other Republican congressional candidates are more wary when it comes to embracing the New York real estate mogul. Recent polls have shown Trump trailing Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
University of Minnesota political science professor Kathryn Pearson said this year's election is unusual because of the tepid response Trump has been getting from Republican members of Congress. When it comes to GOP candidates, Pearson said they are deploying one of three strategies when it comes to Trump.
"Some are enthusiastically supporting Trump. Some have indicated they will support the party's nominee, and some are not supporting him. And so I think the calculation really depends on the perception of the candidate's own district and also how closely their message aligns with Trump's message," Pearson said.
In Minnesota, 3rd District GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen has sought to distance himself from Trump, saying the Republican presidential nominee "has not earned my vote."
Second District Republican candidate Jason Lewis is saying he will vote for the party's nominee but isn't talking much about Trump on the campaign stump. Meanwhile, 8th District Republican candidate Stewart Mills is wholeheartedly supporting Trump.
Trump's support in 1st District
The big question is how Hagedorn's support for Trump will play in the 1st Congressional District, which historically has been considered a swing district. In 2012, 1st District voters narrowly favored Obama over Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In 2014, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson won the district over DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. That same year, district voters favored DFL Sen. Al Franken over Republican Mike McFadden.
Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said Hagedorn's decision to actively support Trump will backfire in the 1st Congressional District.
"There are certainly pockets of the state where Trump is going to have some appeal, but in most of our polling and what we're seeing, the voters in southern Minnesota overwhelmingly have rejected Donald Trump's brand of extremism politics," Martin said.
Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Keith Downey sees it differently. He said Trump's message about a rigged system in Washington is playing well in greater Minnesota.
"The fundamentals with us for the Trump campaign at the top of the ticket are good in the 1st, the 7th and 8th congressional districts — especially where you have Democrats who you can argue don't fit the district well," Downey said.
Walz's campaign has shown an eagerness to tie Hagedorn to Trump. In a statement, Walz's campaign manager Terry Morrow said, "From his disrespectful comments about women, veterans and the disabled to his reckless, irresponsible approach to national security, Jim Hagedorn is built in the same mold as Donald Trump. In November, voters in Southern Minnesota will reject them both as they have before."
Clinton support a liability for Walz?
Hagedorn contends that Walz's strong support for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton could end up being a political liability. Walz, a super delegate, supported Clinton early on in the presidential campaign. But the Mankato Democrat opted not to go to the Democratic National Convention.
Hagedorn said he has talked to plenty of union members who are not fans of Clinton.
"They may be skeptical of Trump, but they do not like Clinton," he said.
Pearson said it is possible some voters in the 1st District who have supported Walz in the past are not fans of Clinton. But as a long-term incumbent, Walz is well known to voters.
"If he were a Democrat running closely aligned with Clinton and not well known to voters in the district, that could be a liability," she said.
Looking ahead to November, Hagedorn said he is confident Trump will win the 1st District and the White House in November.
He added, "I predicted a long time ago that by the end of the election, (Democrats) will be running away from Hillary Clinton as fast as other Republicans will be running toward Donald Trump. I really believe that."