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Will Ettinger's late push be enough?

DFL Congressional candidate makes six-figure ad buy less than two weeks before Nov. 8 midterms. He hopes to topple incumbent Rep. Brad Finstad, who holds an advantage in the polls.

Jeff Ettinger and Brad Finstad
Jeff Ettinger, left, and Brad Finstad, right.
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ROCHESTER — The campaign of Jeff Ettinger, the DFL candidate for Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, announced today that it was making a six-figure ad buy that will be running 30-second spots in media markets across the district.

The ad highlights his opponent Rep. Brad Finstad’s first vote in Congress, the Ettinger campaign said. That’s when Finstad voted largely along party lines against the Inflation Reduction Act, legislation that included a provision requiring the federal government to negotiate drug costs for people on Medicare.

Ettinger said Finstad’s vote showed his misplaced priorities, elevating the party over the people he represents, given how much 1st District constituents will benefit from lower drug costs. And coming less than two weeks before the Nov. 8 election, the Ettinger campaign boasted that the ad buy builds on momentum that had been generated since the Star Tribune editorial board endorsed Ettinger for Congress.

But the timing begs the question: Is the ad buy a momentum-builder or a last throw of the dice?

The political climate suggests the latter.

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Both The Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate the race as “Likely Republican,” meaning that Finstad has a clear edge to retain the seat but an upset is possible.

And unlike Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District race between DFL Rep. Angie Craig and Republican challenger Tyler Kister, in which an estimated $30 million is being poured into the competitive race by interest groups and PACs, there is little evidence that the 1st District race has been a magnet for outside money.

U.S. Rep. Brad Finstad in Kasson
U.S. Rep. Brad Finstad meets with Kasson-area community leaders Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, at the Kasson City Hall.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Moreover, a KSTP/SurveyUSA poll shows Finstad with a 9-point lead over Ettinger, a bigger edge than has usually been the case in the district’s recent political history. By comparison, Rep. Jim Hagedorn — who died in office last February from cancer, triggering a special election that Finstad won last August against Ettinger — trailed by just one percentage point at this time two years ago against his DFL opponent Dan Feehan.

“The district has become a pretty reliable Republican district,” said Steven Schier, a political analyst. “You have that district characteristic, plus all the bad news.”

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The numbers within the poll lay bare the kind of uphill battle Ettinger, a former CEO of Hormel Foods and first-time political candidate, faces. According to an analysis provided by Schier, Finstad leads among all education groups, even college students at +1, a demographic that typically favors Democrats. Finstad also leads among urban, suburban and rural voters.

The 1st District appears to reflect a national mood that has been shifting toward Republicans in the last month, as public dissatisfaction with Democratic stewardship over the economy has grown. The climate, in turn, has allowed Republicans and their allies to devote resources and challenge Democratic House incumbents in districts where President Biden won by 10 percentage points.

In what would be a strong sweep for the GOP, the Cook Report is predicting that Republicans could gain between 12 to 25 seats, giving them control of the House of Representatives.

“With less than two weeks until Election Day, it looks as if the fundamentals — an unpopular president, deep frustration with the status quo, and stubborn inflation — are ultimately going to define this midterm,” wrote Cook political analyst Amy Walter Wednesday.

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“The environment in recent weeks has been an increasingly pro-Republican trend nationally,” Schier said. “That is showing up in this poll in the 1st District.”

Maggiy Emery, Ettinger’s deputy campaign manager, disputed the notion that Ettinger’s advertising push was a last-ditch effort to salvage the congressional election.

“Jeff is something special,” she said. “Everywhere we go, people know who he is. He has that connection to Hormel, which people have a really deep connection with across southern Minnesota. And he way overperformed in the special election.”

Congressional Candidate Jeff Ettinger
Jeff Ettinger, a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in Minnesota's First Congressional District, meets with the Post Bulletin editorial board Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, in the Post Bulletin newsroom in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Throughout the campaign, Ettinger has sought to make political hay over Finstad’s vote against the Inflation Reduction Act and, by implication, his stance against empowering the government to negotiate drug prices.

“Finstad called it an ‘an easy no,’” Ettinger said in a press statement. “In this time of rising costs, there should be nothing easy about voting to keep costs higher for essential medicine.”

Neither Finstad nor his campaign responded to an email seeking comment. But in debates, Finstad, a former state legislator and state director for USDA Rural Development under former President Trump, has not been shy about ripping into the legislation.

He said the legislation, despite its label, won’t reduce inflation. He criticized it for packing all kinds of unrelated issues into a single bill, including the hiring of 87,000 IRS agents.

“We have to be honest,” Finstad said at their first debate, “and really try to take these issues one at a time versus throwing them all in this big can of politics.”

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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