Finstad takes the oath; Ettinger heartened by special election performance as both shift sights on midterms
Finstad beat Ettinger by 4 points; the two will meet again in November when turnout will be much higher, but who will benefit from it is an open question.
ROCHESTER — If the battle for Minnesota's 1st Congressional District were described in baseball terms, what happened in Tuesday’s special election was the first game of a doubleheader, and Republican Rep. Brad Finstad won the first game.
Congressman Finstad was sworn in on Friday and will serve the remaining four months of a two-year term. The special election was held after then-GOP Rep. Jim Hagedorn died in office from cancer in February.
But the second game holds out the bigger prize.
That’s when Finstad and Democrat Jeff Ettinger will go head-to-head again, this time in November, when a slightly different mix of voters in a newly drawn 1st Congressional District will decide the contest. The winner will secure a two-year term in Congress.
Tuesday’s outcome was not unexpected in the red-leaning CD-1. Finstad defeated Ettinger 51% to 46.9%, and he did so outperforming Hagedorn in many counties of the district. Finstad's victory gives him the edge in the midterms.
But Ettinger, former Hormel Foods’ CEO, found himself within striking distance of Finstad. And in an interview, the first-time candidate said he saw reasons for optimism with the general election three months away, when turnout will be much larger.
“It’s a new district, which has some advantages,” Ettinger said. “We’re encouraged. Our folks made a lot of efforts in the last few days, going door to door to a lot of places. And I think that ultimately paid off in terms of what we saw in the evening’s results.”
Asked if he planned to campaign differently in the three months leading up to the midterms, Ettinger said he is still “new to the political world.”
Internal polling in June showed only 40% of people polled were aware of who Ettinger was, he said. That number grew as the special election approached, and “we will do things that continue to make sure I'm out in front of voters and that we’re communicating with them.”
Ettinger also argued that the new CD-1 will benefit his campaign, noting that Le Sueur County, an area he lost by 24 points in the special election, is not part of the new congressional district while Red Wing in Goodhue County, “where I think we can do reasonably well,” will be.
Ettinger said students will be back on campus in Winona, Mankato and St. Peter, as well as community college campuses, and “we certainly intend to reach out to those audiences.”
Turnout is expected to be much higher in November, driven by partisan contests from governor on down to secretary of state and attorney general. And though abortion rights will not be on the ballot, it could drive turnout as well. Gov. Tim Walz, DFL, supports a women’s right to choose and GOP candidate Scott Jensen is pro-life. Abortion is legal in Minnesota.
Ettinger said he supports abortion rights and would vote for legislation to codify that right.
“It’s a big state issue,” Ettinger said. “Minnesota is sort of an island in the Upper Midwest area in terms of abortion rights right now. And that’s at risk if Gov. Walz was not successful or the Democrats can’t hold the House. So I think it will be in the front of the minds of voters in November.”
The Finstad campaign did not make Finstad or a spokesperson available for an interview for this story, citing the swearing-in of the new congressman and voting on the House floor.
But in a statement released Friday, David FitzSimmons, Finstad's general consultant, said the strategy will not really be different for the November election than it was for the special election.
"Brad Finstad received a higher percentage of votes than any Republican candidate in the 1st since 2004," FitzSimmons said. "The message from the voters is consistent. They are concerned about raising costs, especially gas and fuel costs. Our focus will be on domestic energy production and pro-growth economic policies. Brad will continue to meet with voters where they are, all across the district. Brad is honored to have been elected by the voters of southern Minnesota and we feel very confident Congressman Finstad will be re-elected in November."
Tuesday’s special election was watched by national political analysts for trends that might impact the midterms. Unlike most of the other electoral contests featuring intra-party battles or primaries, Tuesday’s 1st District battle featured a face off between Republican and Democratic candidates.
Some analysts, such as Dave Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political report, noted how much Finstad underperformed relative to Trump in 2020, when the former president won the district by 10 percentage points. Finstad won it by only four points.
Ettinger, on the other hand, outperformed President Biden in a number of DFL-leaning districts, particularly his home county of Mower. Ettinger won it by 14 points to Biden’s minus-6, a 20-point swing.
Analysts have speculated that Ettinger’s strong performance relative to Biden and Finstad’s underperformance relative to Trump was proof that the enthusiasm gap that had once so strongly favored Republicans had narrowed due to the Dobbs’ decision.
Steven Schier, a state political analyst, calls the comparison “apples to oranges.” The more relevant comparison is not with past presidential contenders but with past congressional candidates in CD-1. And in that scenario, Finstad outperformed Hagedorn.
“I think (Finstad is) favored,” Schier said, “but I also think he received a warning signal from the special about the fact that this is not locked up and stowed away in the attic for him.”
Schier said Olmsted County, which went heavily for Ettinger, was over-represented in the special election compared to 2020. In Tuesday's election, it represented 30% of the district’s vote, but in 2020, it was around 25%. That suggests that Ettinger benefited from the low-turnout in the special election, not Finstad.
“By November, you’re going to have a much bigger turnout,” Schier said. “And if Olmsted recedes back to its traditional proportion of the district, around 25%, that probably increases Finstad’s margin.”