Minnesota Special Election, Four State Primaries Set on Tuesday

  • Republican poised to win Minnesota special to replace Hagedorn
  • Vermont likely to choose its first woman in Congress

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Republicans are favored to win a special House election in Minnesota on Tuesday, when primaries in that state and in three others will also set up highly competitive Nov. 8 matchups for some House and Senate seats.

Minnesota Republican Brad Finstad, a former state representative who was an official in the Agriculture Department in Donald Trump’s administration, has the edge over Democrat Jeff Ettinger, a former CEO of Hormel Foods, in the southern 1st District vacated by the February death of Republican Jim Hagedorn.

The national political party organizations and major super PACs didn’t wage major campaigns in the 1st District, which backed Trump over President Joe Biden by 10 percentage points in the 2020 election. No House Democrat in the current 117th Congress represents a district as pro-Trump as Minnesota’s 1st.

“This is not a high-profile race nationally because Republicans are confident they’ll keep it. Democrats have far more inviting opportunities than the 1st District,” said Steven Schier, a professor of political science emeritus at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

Still, the margin between Finstad and Ettinger may be worth watching 13 weeks before the Nov. 8 general election and after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Minnesota’s regularly scheduled primary also is on Tuesday and probably will set up a Finstad-Ettinger rematch in the fall. Elsewhere in the state, Democratic Reps. Betty McCollum and Ilhan Omar from the Twin Cities face well-funded primary challengers.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D) is poised to win Tuesday’s Senate primary and face GOP incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson in November.

It’s also primary day Tuesday in Wisconsin, where Democrats are targeting Sen. Ron Johnson (R) for defeat and Republicans are eyeing a House seat left open by a Democratic retirement; Vermont, which is poised to elect its first woman to Congress; and Connecticut, where Republicans are trying to win a House seat for the first time since 2006.

Here’s a look at House and Senate races to watch in those states. The 2020 presidential election results for Biden and Trump are noted parenthetically.

Connecticut

Senate (Biden won Connecticut 59%-39%): Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) is favored to win a third term against the winner of a three-candidate Republican primary. Connecticut last elected a Republican to the Senate in 1982.

2nd District (Biden 55%-43%): Eight-term Rep. Joe Courtney (D) and Republican state Rep. Mike France are unopposed in the primaries in Connecticut’s easternmost district. Courtney was re-elected by 21 percentage points in 2020 but is on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Frontline” incumbent-protection program.

Courtney is chair of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces. The district includes General Dynamics’ Electric Boat Division, the primary builder of submarines for the Navy for more than 100 years, and the Coast Guard Academy.

5th District (Biden 55%-44%): Two-term Rep. Jahana Hayes (D) and Republican George Logan, a former state senator, are unopposed in the primary in a northwestern-central district that includes Danbury, Meriden, New Britain, Cheshire and part of Waterbury.

A court-ordered redistricting made the tiniest of changes to the 5th. The map shifted 5,024 people from Republican-leaning Torrington into the adjacent 1st District of Rep. John Larson (D), but otherwise this is the exact same district where Hayes was re-elected 55%-43% in 2020. Hayes also is in the DCCC’s Frontline program.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) raised money for France and Logan last weekend in Connecticut.

Minnesota

1st District (Trump 54%-44% before redistricting, Trump 53%-44% after redistricting): The Brad Finstad-Jeff Ettinger special election might have attracted ample national attention and big campaign spending had it been held a decade ago.

Democrats fare well in Rochester, home to the Mayo Clinic, and in Austin, where Hormel is headquartered, and Gov. Tim Walz (D) represented the area in Congress last decade. But the 1st is otherwise a mostly rural and farm-based district where cultural conservatism has pushed the 1st toward Republicans.

“What has happened in the last 10 years, and particularly in the last five to six years in the Trump era, is that it has moved pretty emphatically in a conservative direction,” Schier said. “Despite Rochester and Austin voting Democratic, the rest of the district is heavily red and Republican.”

Finstad played up his background in agriculture and his opposition to Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). He noted Ettinger’s donations to Biden’s 2020 campaign. “As a farmer and father of seven, I know Biden’s inflation has made it hard on families,” Finstad said in a TV ad.

Ettinger ran as a centrist, independent of national Democratic figures including Biden and Pelosi. He provided $900,000 of the $1.35 million his campaign reported raising through July 20.

Finstad and Ettinger also are favored to win the regular primary on Tuesday. Finstad is opposed by state Rep. Jeremy Munson in a rematch of a special Republican primary in May that Finstad won 38%-37%. But the libertarian conservative groups that aided Munson didn’t intervene in Tuesday’s primary.

The special election will be held under the 2020 configuration of the 1st District, while Tuesday’s primary and the Nov. 8 general election will be held under new lines that are slightly less Republican-friendly.

2nd District (Biden 52%-45%): Two-term Rep. Angie Craig (D) and Republican Tyler Kistner, a Marine Corps veteran, are in a rematch of a 2020 contest that Craig won by 2 percentage points. Neither Craig nor Kistner is opposed in the primary.

Craig reported $4.7 million in cash-on-hand July 20, compared with $2.6 million at a comparable point in the 2020 election. Kistner was an early beneficiary of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Young Guns” program that promotes the party’s strongest candidates in competitive races. The political party organizations and allied super PACs plan to spend millions more on what should be Minnesota’s most competitive race on Nov. 8.

The 2nd District takes in southern suburbs of the Twin Cities, including all of Dakota and Scott counties, and was marginally altered in redistricting. Biden’s margin of victory in the revised district would have been 7.1 percentage points, up from 6.8 points previously.

4th District (Biden 67%-30%): Rep. Betty McCollum, the dean of the Minnesota congressional delegation who’s represented St. Paul since 2001, is opposed by Amane Badhasso, a community organizer and political activist who’s well-funded.

Badhasso, who came to the US as a refugee from Ethiopia at age 13, is trying to run to McCollum’s left even though McCollum has a liberal voting record. Badhasso said McCollum relies too much on PAC money, including from pharmaceutical and defense interests. Badhasso raised $827,000 through July 20, all of it from individuals and none from PACs.

As the chair of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, McCollum has emphasized how climate change can affect military operations.

5th District (Biden 80%-17%): Rep. Ilhan Omar (D), a member of the vocal bloc of progressives called “The Squad,” is opposed in the primary by Don Samuels, a former Minneapolis city councilman, in Minnesota’s most strongly Democratic district.

Samuels raised more than $1 million and said he would work with Biden to reduce gun violence and protect abortion rights. A pro-Samuels super PAC called Make a Difference aired a TV ad that praised his opposition to “defunding the police.” The PAC received $50,000 apiece from Minnesota businessmen Kelly Doran and Vance Opperman, who are frequent Democratic donors.

The district includes all of Minneapolis, where the death of George Floyd in 2020 while in the custody of police triggered protests and a larger national debate about race and police violence. Omar has criticized Biden for suggesting increased funding for police and called for shifting funds to social services.

Samuels is Omar’s second well-financed primary opponent in as many election cycles. Omar won her 2020 primary 58%-39% over lawyer Anton Melton-Meaux, overcoming opposition from pro-Israel groups critical of Omar’s controversial comments about their political influence in the US.

Vermont

Senate (Biden won Vermont 66%-31%): Sen. Pat Leahy (D) is retiring after 48 years in office — the longest tenure of any current senator and the third-longest in the history of the chamber, behind only Robert Byrd (D-W. Va) and Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii).

Leahy’s likely successor is Rep. Peter Welch (D), who’s represented Vermont’s statewide district since 2007. Welch faces two little-known primary opponents and would face the winner of a three-candidate Republican primary that includes Christina Nolan, a former federal prosecutor endorsed by Gov. Phil Scott (R).

At-Large Seat: The first woman to represent Vermont in Congress probably will be the winner of the Democratic primary for Welch’s seat. The leading candidates are Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and Becca Balint, the president pro tempore and former majority leader of the Vermont Senate.

Gray’s donors included Leahy, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and the political arm of the New Democrat Coalition, which says it seeks to “bridge the gap between left and right.”

Balint’s backers included Sen. Bernie Sanders (I), the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC and some LGBTQ organizations and members of Congress. Vermont has never had an openly LGBTQ member of Congress.

Vermont is the only state to have never sent a woman to Congress. The low-population state has had just one House member since the 1930s, and its male federal officeholders — including Leahy, Welch and Sanders — often have served in Washington for a long time.

Wisconsin

Senate (Biden won Wisconsin 49.4%-48.8%): Sen. Ron Johnson probably has the most competitive race of any Republican senator seeking re-election. Wisconsin, the only state that was decided by less than one percentage point in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, will be among the few states that will determine which party wins a Senate majority.

The Democratic primary is now a formality. Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes’ three major rivals all ended their campaigns late last month and endorsed Barnes to be the party’s standard-bearer.

Barnes’ ads included one in which his mother said she had an abortion. If elected, Barnes would be Wisconsin’s first Black senator.

Johnson, who originally said he would serve just two Senate terms, has emphasized his support for tax relief and opposition to the Biden administration’s spending proposals. He faces nominal opposition in the primary.

1st District (Trump 50%-48%): A court-ordered redistricting map reduced the Republican leanings of the southeastern 1st District in and around Kenosha and Racine, but two-term Rep. Bryan Steil (R) seems more politically secure this year than the close Biden-Trump numbers suggest.

Steil is unopposed in the primary as is Democrat Ann Roe, a businesswoman who announced her candidacy before redistricting. Roe reported $199,000 in cash-on-hand July 20 compared with $1.8 million for Steil.

3rd District (Trump 51%-47%): The retirement of 13-term moderate Rep. Ron Kind (D) gives Republicans a golden opportunity to flip a western Wisconsin district that includes Eau Claire and La Crosse and voted for Trump.

Republican Derrick Van Orden, a former Navy SEAL who almost unseated Kind in 2020, is unopposed in the primary and awaits the winner of a contested Democratic race.

State Sen. Brad Pfaff, a former Kind aide, is backed by his former boss, some agriculture and labor PACs, and the political arm of the New Democrat Coalition. Deb McGrath, a retired CIA officer and Army veteran whose father Al Baldus served in the House from 1975 to 1981, was supported by VoteVets, a progressive veterans’ organization. Rebecca Cooke, the third major Democrat in the race, grew up on a dairy farm and owns a home goods and accessories retail shop.

With more than $1.7 million in his campaign account, Van Orden will begin the general-election campaign with a big head start over the Democratic nominee. Democrats say Van Orden has vulnerabilities that include attending the Jan. 6, 2021, Trump rally in Washington that preceded a violent attack on the Capitol by a mob of pro-Trump supporters.

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Giroux in Washington at ggiroux@bgov.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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