SLEEPY EYE, Minn. — Brad Finstad performed a rare political feat Tuesday. He got a twofer.
Finstad is heading to Congress. And he will maintain his hold on the seat in November if he beats the man in the general election that he defeated in Tuesday’s special election.
But it was a closer call in the special election than it at first appeared to be. With all precincts reporting, vote totals as of 9 a.m. Wednesday showed Finstad up with 59,797 votes over former Hormel CEO and Democrat Jeff Ettinger’s 55,053.
Finstad, a New Ulm farmer and small businessman, defeated Ettinger in the special election that was called after Rep. Jim Hagedorn died in office from cancer in February.
Finstad’s special election victory means he will serve out the remainder of Hagedorn’s term, which runs through January 2023.
At one point, with 50% of precincts reporting, Finstad appeared to have an unassailable lead over Ettinger, 55% to 43%, and looked to have the wind at his back heading into the general election.
But as the night wore on, Finstad’s double-digit lead eroded into the single digits. In many counties, Finstad did worse than former President Trump did in 2020 and Ettinger did better than President Biden. Trump won the district in 2020 by a sizable 10 percentage points.
“To be clear, the #MN01 special is still a safe call for Brad Finstad (R), but his final margin over Jeff Ettinger (D) won’t be anything to write home about – and fits a pattern of a ‘red wave’ ebb post-Dobbs,” tweeted Dave Wasserman, U.S. House editor of the Cook Political Report.
The special election outcome suggests it would be hazardous to predict a winner three months from now in the general election when turnout could be higher.
In two DFL-leaning counties in particular, Ettinger massively overperformed relative to Biden. In Mower County, Ettinger’s home turf, the former Hormel chief won the county by 14%, while Biden had lost it by 6%. In Winona County, Ettinger was a +9 and Biden a +0.4.
Ettinger also did better than Biden in Olmsted County, winning by 17% to Biden’s 11%.
Finstad also advanced to the Nov. 8 general election Tuesday after defeating state Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, in the primary in the newly drawn 1st Congressional District. Ettinger advanced too in his DFL primary.
“We in this country are at a crossroads, no doubt about it,” Finstad said in a victory speech in front of 150 supporters at the Sleepy Eye Event Center.
“We see record inflation, and we are struggling. We need some common sense and a farm boy mentality. We need to roll up our sleeves,” Finstad said.
He was joined on the stage by his wife, Jaclyn, and his seven children.
“We are going to miss Jim Hagedorn, but we have in Brad Finstad a wonderful replacement to carry on that legacy,” said Rep. Michelle Fischbach, who said she looked forward to “hanging out” with a restored GOP contingent that includes herself and Reps. Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber.
Aaron Farris, GOP 1st Congressional Chairman, said Finstad’s victory was built on his ability to overperform relative to Hagedorn in 2020 in many pockets of the district, and where he wasn’t outperforming Hagedorn, he was holding steady.
Ettinger did not hold an election night party “out of an abundance of caution” since contracting COVID last week, said a campaign spokesperson.
In the general election primary race for November’s general election, Finstad, a moderate Republican, trounced the Freedom Caucus-backed Munson 75% to 24%. It was a sharp contrast to the special election primary in May where Finstad barely squeaked out a win over Munson. But this time, Finstad had the GOP’s endorsement.
Finstad served three terms as state representative, and Ettinger is a first-time political candidate.
The 1st District has consistently voted for Republicans and moderate Democrats for decades. And for months, the seat appeared to be a shoo-in for Republicans, given President Biden’s low popularity over four-decade-high inflation and the rising costs of fuel and food. Some analysts predicted a wave election for the GOP.
But within the past several months, national politics became more scrambled and the race has been viewed nationally as offering a possible glimpse of the political mood.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to an abortion, enraging and galvanizing many Democrats. Finstad is anti-abortion, and Ettinger supports the right to choose.
This week, the Democratic-led Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, giving the Democrats a win on the eve of the election. The legislation seeks to fight inflation, invest in green energy and reduce carbon emissions.
But on the night prior to the election, FBI agents raided former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago compound in Palm Beach, Florida, as part of an investigation into the handling of presidential documents. The move has whipped Trump’s base into a fury.
Whether this mishmash of factors played a role in the race that wasn’t high on many voters’ radars will be fought over by analysts.
Following his special election primary victory in May, Finstad was then endorsed by Republicans in the new 1st District. But Munson chose not to abide by the process and opted to challenge Finstad in the general election primary.
Finstad also served as a U.S. Department of Agricultural official in the Trump administration.
“Hopefully, it’s a sign of good things to come in the special election,” Finstad said in an interview after the general election primary was called Tuesday night. “This is a sign that we were able to connect with voters.”