A purple candidate in an increasingly red district

1st District has elected Democrats to Congress, but is becoming GOP stronghold

By: - November 3, 2022 7:46 am

Jeff Ettinger, left, is the DFL candidate for the 1st District. Rep. Brad Finstad, right, is running on the Republican ticket. Courtesy photos.

OWATONNA — On paper at least, the Democrats ought to be able to pick up a win in the 1st Congressional District. 

Their candidate, longtime Austin resident Jeff Ettinger, has an impressive resume. He rose through the ranks of Hormel Foods before becoming CEO, while keeping his Everyman demeanor serving on local nonprofit boards. He’s selling himself as a moderate and conciliator: “I think we have too much fighting in Washington, and I’d offer myself up as a less partisan problem-solver,” Ettinger said.  

U.S. Rep. Brad Finstad is a generic Republican who served three terms in the Minnesota House before his time as a mid-level bureaucrat in former President Donald Trump’s administration. 

DFL Gov. Tim Walz represented the 1st in Congress for a dozen years, and the district’s largest city, Rochester, is becoming more Democratic every day. After redistricting, the district no longer includes Le Sueur County, a conservative bastion, and picked up the city of Red Wing, a more liberal hub, which is a potential benefit for Ettinger. 

And yet, in a sign of the strong winds blowing in the face of Democrats outside the Twin Cities and nationwide, few people give Ettinger much of a chance. A recent KSTP poll showed him 9 percentage points behind after losing an August special election to Finstad by 4 points. 

Inflation is at a 40-year high, the party that controls the White House is suffering the usual midterm curse and Republicans are again on the march in rural America. 

The stakes are high: Republicans are promising that if they take the House majority, they’ll end any further investigations of the Jan. 6 insurrection; shut down the government unless President Joe Biden accedes to their demands; and investigate and impeach government officials, from FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Merrick Garland all the way to Biden.

A purple candidate for a purple district

Ettinger, 64, says a bigger turnout in November compared to the August special election will propel him to victory in what he calls a purple district, despite big Trump victories in 2016 and 2020. The late Rep. Jim Hagedorn was a right-wing Republican who won narrowly in 2018 and 2020 and voted against certifying the 2020 election.  

The district spans southern Minnesota from South Dakota to the Wisconsin border. It has become increasingly diverse, with immigration hubs in Austin and Worthington. Since 1979, the district has consistently flipped between Republican and Democratic representatives.

Ettinger, who has supported Republicans and Democrats in the past but has never run for office, said he can represent the entire district and work with both sides of the political aisle. He criticized Finstad for voting with his party 100% of the time.

Some residents are apprehensive about a former CEO originally from southern California as their representative.

Greg Bartz is chair of the Brown County Republicans. He said Finstad, who helps run his family’s farm in New Ulm, is a better candidate because “he’s one of us.” 

Bartz, 68, has been a veterinarian and farmer in the county since 1980. “[Finstad’s] not this multi-millionaire on the hill,” Bartz said. “I don’t think Ettinger is one of us.”

Ettinger was the CEO of Hormel for 11 years before retiring in 2016. According to the Star Tribune, Ettinger’s total compensation in 2015 was nearly $5.7 million and rose to nearly $36 million in 2016. The district’s median household income is about $70,000, according to 2021 American Community Survey data.

Ettinger is not new to southern Minnesota. He has lived in Austin for 28 years and has been involved in the community for as many years, serving on a nursing home board, coaching YMCA sports and getting involved in the school district.

“Yes, I was the CEO for a company for 11 years, but I’m [64] years old, and I have a lot of other experiences in life,” Ettinger said.

Patrick Greenwood, 77, has lived in Owatonna since 1975 and supports Ettinger because of his business background.

“His qualifications are as good as we’ve ever had,” Greenwood said.

Ettinger plans to bring his business mindset to Congress to match up government spending with community needs. For instance, he wants government to help train workers for the jobs the district’s industry is trying to fill.

“There’s a mismatch between the skills needed for some of those jobs and what our students have at the moment,” Ettinger said.

He said the federal government needs to better fund community colleges. He cited his work at the Hormel Foundation in Austin as preparation for work on skilled labor issues. The foundation provides Austin High School graduates with two years of free community college.

He also said the government could expand its grant programs, so people who are in need do not have to take out loans. 

Ettinger disagreed with President Joe Biden’s student loan debt relief plan, though, saying it’s too broad. 

“I do believe government can play a valuable role in addressing some of society’s challenges, but I think you have to pick your spots,” Ettinger said. “When we are going to get involved… it should be focused on those who are truly in need.”

Ettinger’s campaign has focused on reproductive rights since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision.

Ettinger said the majority of residents want abortion to remain legal with some restrictions, and if elected, he would work to codify Roe v. Wade.

Finstad has largely brushed off the question, saying nothing has changed in Minnesota. He also says he’s “100% pro-life,” however, and has helped form and fund “crisis pregnancy centers,” which provide women who are pregnant with abortion alternatives.  

“We know where the conversation’s going if Brad and the folks who agree with him have their way on the issue,” Ettinger said.

‘A southern Minnesota boy through and through’

Finstad, 46, is trying to appeal to the district’s rural community, and much of his platform is about supporting the region’s small farms.

The 2022 special election was his first bid for federal office, but he served three terms as a state representative for District 21B, which includes Brown, Watonwan and Redwood counties. Finstad also served as Trump’s state director for rural development in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Finstad, whose campaign did not respond to interview requests, says his priorities are family economic issues. He blames the Biden administration for the highest inflation in 40 years. At October public forums in Mankato and Owatonna, Finstad said one way to solve inflation is to build more pipelines to lower the cost of energy.

Finstad said at the Mankato forum he’s running for federal office because he does not think the current government is a good example for his seven children.

“The politics of punching each other in the face verbally and trying to have sound bites to get on Fox News or CNN is not the way to govern,” he said.

(Finstad says on his website that he is “pro-Trump,” which would seem to belie his promise of civility given Trump’s frequent verbal barrages and calls for violence.) 

At both forums, he said the best form of government is at the local level in townships and counties.

“The idea that we need more government and the government is the answer or solution to our challenges is something I just don’t accept,” Finstad said in Mankato.

During his tenure at the Department of Agriculture, however, the Trump administration doled out $23 billion to farmers to compensate for losses in the trade war with China. 

Ron Yezzi, 84, has lived in Mankato since 1969 and was dismayed by Finstad’s comments about less government.

“I’m bothered by someone who gets up and says, ‘Everything should be done at the local level’…and he’s running for a federal position,” Yezzi said. “I think he should keep doing what he’s doing on local boards.”

Clashing candidates on inflation and insurrection

While Ettinger and Finstad do agree on several issues like public safety and lowering health care costs, they clash on the Inflation Reduction Act and the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Ettinger supports the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes measures to expand health care coverage, reduce prescription drug costs and fuel clean energy initiatives. 

“I thought it was well focused, paid for and a good bill,” Ettinger said.

Finstad said he voted against it because it increases government spending, so it will not actually reduce inflation. (The spending is paid for with more revenue.) He said the act has too many provisions with which he disagrees, including the climate incentives.

Both candidates were asked a question from the audience at the Owatonna forum about the Jan. 6 insurrection and committee hearings.

Finstad did not answer whether he supported or condemned Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 but has said he would have voted to certify Biden’s win. He said he has not talked to any constituents who are concerned about Jan. 6, and said the Jan. 6 committee is not necessary.

“It’s a partisan committee,” Finstad said, although it includes two Republicans, including vice chair U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming. “We need to put an end to it and move on.”

Stephanie Shea, 69, has lived in Owatonna for 46 years. She said her top issue in this year’s election is “saving our democracy.”

“I cannot believe, even if he’s only talked to Republicans, that no one would say they’re concerned about those things,” Shea said.

Ettinger condemned Trump’s actions and said Jan. 6 may not be Minnesotans’ No. 1 issue, but people he has talked to are concerned about the insurrection and its lasting impacts, like election deniers running for office in Minnesota.

“I’ve had it come up over and over again,” Ettinger said. “It doesn’t seem like we have moved on from it.”

Brian Abrahamson from the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party and Richard Reisdorf from the Legal Marijuana Now Party are also running for Minnesota’s 1st District. 

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Maia Irvin
Maia Irvin

Maia is an intern at Minnesota Reformer. She is a fourth-year student at the University of Minnesota and the editor-in-chief of the Minnesota Daily. She is originally from Austin, Minn.