By Mark Fischenich, Mankato Free Press - Voters in southern Minnesota will face a clear contrast not only in opinions but in personal styles when they reach the U.S. House portion of their general election ballot.
Congressman Tim Walz, the five-term Democratic incumbent from Mankato, and Jim Hagedorn, a Blue Earth Republican making his third attempt at a seat in Congress, disagree on health care, refugees, energy policy and tax and spending strategy. But the two men also appear to have distinctly different attitudes about how a lawmaker should serve.
Walz points to his place on The Lugar Center-McCourt School Bipartisan Index — a ranking of 536 members of Congress on their ability and willingness to work with members of the opposing party. Walz ranked as the fourth most bipartisan member of the House, fifth overall when the Senate is included.
"We're getting things done in a time when almost nothing is getting done," Walz said of the lawmakers near the top of the list. "And now in this time of divided government, more than ever you should be looking for the problem-solvers — not the partisans."
Hagedorn, a former Treasury Department official who returned to southern Minnesota in 2009 for his first congressional run, said his stances on issues — a moratorium on refugees from places like Syria, tougher restrictions on immigration, repeal of the Affordable Care Act, smaller government and tax cuts — better mesh with the opinions of southern Minnesota.
"One of the things Walz and I disagree about is he talks about process," Hagedorn said. "What about solutions? ... Process has never solved any problems. It takes ideas and solutions."
Walz and Hagedorn agree on one thing — the federal government isn't functioning particularly well.
The problem, according to Walz, is the extreme partisanship of some members of Congress. In the House, that includes the Freedom Caucus, which had its roots in the tea party movement and works to block legislation that doesn't meet the group's ultraconservative approach. If House Republican leaders were willing to work with moderate Democrats, many of the most vexing problems facing the nation could be fixed, Walz said.
Hagedorn believes the government has shifted too far to the left during the presidency of Barack Obama. If Donald Trump wins the White House, the solutions most Americans crave can be enacted and America can return to a safer and more prosperous course of less intrusive government, a stronger farm economy and national security founded on aggressive action against illegal immigration and Islamic terrorism, according to Hagedorn.
Unlike some Republican congressional candidates, Hagedorn hasn't backed away from Trump even as the New York businessman's campaign has been undermined by his comments about women and his reluctance to say he will accept an unfavorable outcome on Nov. 8.
"Presumptive nominees Donald Trump and Mike Pence have my full support," Hagedorn wrote in the midst of the Republican National Convention in July. "I look forward to campaigning as a team and offering the bold solutions needed to make America Great Again."
Many of the policies offered by Trump were first heard in southern Minnesota during the 2014 congressional campaign when Hagedorn fell to Walz 54 percent to 46, according to Hagedorn. The issues this year — building a wall on the Mexican border, blocking the arrival of refugees from places like Syria, repealing Obamacare, eliminating unnecessary federal regulation and opposing gun restrictions — continue in 2016 but are felt even more deeply by voters, Hagedorn said.
"We're running on big national issues, and they're in line with the presidential race when they focus on the issues," he said. "The country is going to either move further to the left as it has under Obama or it will tack to the right under Trump. ... People are ready to tack back to the right and think we're going in the wrong direction."
Hagedorn deflects questions about his attitude toward compromise with Democrats or his approach if America continues to have divided government following the general election. For instance, he wouldn't comment on prospective issues that a Republican House and a President Hillary Clinton, if she prevails, might be able to work together on. He wouldn't say if he would potentially accept a comprehensive deficit-reduction bill that makes major reductions in spending if it also included tax increases.
The low approval ratings of Congress stem in part from the failure of the House to block more of Obama's agenda, according to Hagedorn.
"They want the people in Congress to stand up to him and be a check," Hagedorn said.
He would like the 100-member Senate to end its rule that essentially requires 60 votes, rather than a simple majority, to pass bills. But the primary way that the federal government can start solving problems more consistently is if its members can generate better ideas and policies, according to Hagedorn.
"I think we need to have big, bold reforms," he said.
An different approach
A former Mankato West High School football coach and social studies teacher, Walz would be set to match the 12-year tenure of each of his predecessors — Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht and Democratic Rep. Tim Penny — if he wins a sixth term on Nov. 8.
Penny, who tired of Washington's dysfunction and later joined the Independence Party, didn't seek re-election in 1994. Gutknecht was toppled by Walz in a major upset in 2006.
Walz said he isn't burned out despite frustration with the way Washington works, or fails to work. His re-election campaign, unlike some previous ones, has aired only positive television ads which haven't mentioned his opponent.
Walz said he thinks 1st District voters prefer a positive message rather than the polarized attack ads coming from the presidential race and from other congressional contests in Minnesota. Looking for compromise and avoiding demonization of the other party reflects his approach in Congress as well, he said.
"I've prided myself on being able to work together," he said. "I've prided myself on finding paths to solutions — real things that people want to get done, whether it be veterans suicide prevention or GI bill or making student loans affordable."
Compromises on those targeted pieces of legislation can be replicated with broader issues if more members of Congress take the same approach, according to Walz. It involves accepting the sincerity and legitimacy of the opposing party's strong-felt beliefs and recognizing that neither side can get everything they want.
"Our overarching theme is there is nothing we can't get done if we get past this gridlock with a respect for differences," he said. "Finding common ground is not compromising your values, it's recognizing that other people have that, too, and they care."
The Affordable Care Act is an example, according to Walz. Many of the law's provisions — protecting people with pre-existing medical conditions, allowing young adults to stay on their parents' policy, working to reduce health care costs through preventative medicine, providing health insurance to 20 million Americans — are positive and need to be preserved, he said.
Passing fixes to address soaring costs in the individual insurance marketplace is also necessary and Democrats have offered those fixes, he said.
"But they never get to the floor (for a vote) because the vote we take is to repeal (the entire law)," Walz said. "... Medicare has been fixed nearly a thousand times with votes. You would not vote to throw it out."
The final pitch
Hagedorn, the son of former Republican Congressman Tom Hagedorn, quickly fell in a GOP endorsing convention in 2010 that was eventually won by state Rep. Randy Demmer. He tried again in 2014, losing the endorsement to Aaron Miller but taking the contest to a primary election. Hagedorn won the primary before losing to Walz. This year, he was unopposed for the Republican nomination.
Security issues top his agenda, including a "timeout" on allowing any new refugees to settle in the United States. Hagedorn calls for a more simplified tax code with reductions in corporate taxes and the elimination of the estate tax. He would work to reduce regulations and energy taxes that he says are particularly troublesome for farmers.
Walz, who some have predicted could be a potential candidate for governor in 2018, said he's strongly committed to serving the 1st District for the next two years. He said he will continue the focus of his first 10 years — veterans affairs, promoting renewable energy as a job-creator in the Midwest, better roads, more affordable housing, and taking a comprehensive approach to fighting radical Islamic extremism without turning a back toward war-torn refugees. But he also wants to ensure that young people have the same opportunity for affordable college and job training as his generation did.
"While this might seem like a stressful time, I would suggest to folks — and hear it from them — that it's a privilege to be alive now," he said. "Because we get to tackle these issues."
Northeastern Minnesota's 8th Congressional District is seeing a flood of outside money in a race where a Republican challenger is in a rematch against a Democratic incumbent. Hagedorn hasn't seen that sort of support and had just $55,000 at the end of September for advertising and other campaign activities, but he said that hasn't prevented him from getting his message out and hearing the concerns of voters.
After essentially three and a half years of campaigning — including hundreds of meetings, parades and county fairs — Hagedorn said he is confident his low-budget campaign has shown him the pulse of southern Minnesota.
"You're in a better position to be a good representative of the people because you have a better understanding of who they are and what they're facing," he said.