WASHINGTON — Polls closed Tuesday in southern Minnesota's 1st Congressional District primary race, where a crowd of Republicans and Democrats are competing to serve the final months of the late GOP Rep. Jim Hagedorn's term.
At press time, neither the Republican or DFL primary had been called by The Associated Press.
Prominent GOP candidates include Jennifer Carnahan, the former state Republican chair who is Hagedorn's widow, state GOP Rep. Jeremy Munson and former GOP state Rep. Brad Finstad, who worked in the U.S. Department of Agriculture under then-President Donald Trump.
Former Hormel Foods CEO Jeff Ettinger has emerged as the front-runner in a DFL field that also includes Richard Painter, an ethics lawyer who served in President George W. Bush's administration.
The winners of Tuesday's contests will advance to the Aug. 9 special election.
Republican candidates faced a challenging environment and time frame to try and stand out from one another in the weeks following Hagedorn's February death after a battle with kidney cancer. Local Republicans' failure in April to endorse a 1st District candidate in the normal midterm election cycle for the seat only added to the uncertainty surrounding the race.
The sprawling 1st District includes large portions of rural farmland as well as the regional urban centers of Mankato, Winona and Rochester, home of the Mayo Clinic. Hagedorn won close elections for the seat in 2018 and 2020 after current DFL Gov. Tim Walz held it for more than a decade.
On the same day of the August special election, a primary will also be held for November's general election race. Voters will decide in that fall contest who represents the redrawn 1st District for a full two-year term under the new lines put in place because of the once-a-decade redistricting process.
Republicans have an advantage in both the old and new versions of the seat. Trump has not made an endorsement so far despite candidates trying to associate themselves with the former president.
Munson, a Lake Crystal Republican, was first elected to the Minnesota House in 2018. He later became one of the first members of a conservative breakaway caucus dubbed the New House Republican Caucus.
"We need to do better at selling freedom and selling liberty as opposed to selling social benefits and welfare benefits and checks coming from the government," Munson said at a recent campaign event.
Munson was among a half-dozen GOP state legislators who attended a Jan. 6, 2021, "Storm the Capitol" rally in St. Paul to protest Democratic President Joe Biden's victory. He defended his speech that day — which occurred before news of the violent insurrection in Washington, D.C., became known — as exercising his right to discuss election fraud in Minnesota and did not "constitute an incitement to violence."
Munson has sponsored successful legislation to require exams of defendants with traumatic brain injuries before they are sentenced for felony convictions. He has also been behind more long-shot proposals such as a failed bid to allow western Minnesota counties to secede from the state and join South Dakota.
Munson has pledged to join the far-right House Freedom Caucus if he wins his way to Washington. His campaign website touts that he "will support the America-First agenda," which lists items such as sending "Dr. Fauci to prison." Munson has secured GOP endorsements from the likes of Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan and U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.
Munson has also said about the 2020 presidential race that he doesn't believe Biden "won a legitimate election," maintaining a falsehood that continues to run rampant within the Republican Party.
Finstad has tried to run a more mainstream campaign to create an opening for himself in the GOP field. Finstad was endorsed by Minnesota GOP U.S. Reps. Michelle Fischbach and Pete Stauber.
"We have to run this race knowing that we cannot just appeal to the right side of the right side," Finstad recently told a group of voters. "... The district is much bigger than that."
He has pitched voters on an approach that includes governing despite the political tensions of the day.
"My goal is not to get to Congress and get on Fox News," Finstad told voters last week. "My goal is to get to Congress and get things done."
Carnahan has promoted her race for the seat as carrying on her husband's legacy. She is facing legal action from members of Hagedorn's family over medical expenses. Carnahan is also contending with the continuing fallout of the controversial end of her tenure as GOP state party chair, which she resigned amid pressure and outcry.
"I have moments where I just sit by myself and I break down and I stare at the wall and I just miss my husband," Carnahan said when asked about her campaign last week. "And it's hard. But I also know that he would be proud of me. He would be telling me, 'Keep going, keep going, don't let yourself get too down,' and he would be my biggest cheerleader."
The DFL primary for the seat has proved to be less heated than the campaign on the Republican side. Ettinger said in a recent interview that he's running on a message of being "a mainstream representative."
"It seems like the Republican Party is more intent upon promoting the more extreme elements of their membership to candidacy," he said. "And so I look forward to drawing that contrast."
(StarTribune staff writer Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report.)
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