WASHINGTON — While Brad Finstad won the special election to represent the 1 st congressional District in southern Minnesota by a narrower margin than most political watchers anticipated, the Republican still has an advantage: the advantage of being incumbent.
Finstad was sworn into office last month to represent his district. He joined an exclusive club. In 2020, the re-election rate for incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives was almost 95%. Open Secrets reports that the re-election rates have risen to 97% over the past 50 years and never dropped below 85% in recent years.
Open Secrets stated that “Few things are more predictable in life than the likelihood of an incumbent member of U.S. House of Representatives being reelected.”
Finstad (46) isn’t a long-term incumbent, and there are other factors that play into his race against Democrat Jeff Ettinger.
Finstad’s win over Ettinger by four points in the special election last week prompted a political analysis to change the general election race to “solid Republican” from “lean Republican” since President Joe Biden lost the 1 District by more that 10 percentage points.
Ettinger, 63 years old, is a former Hormel executive and is running as a centrist Democrat. He said he was encouraged by the narrow loss. Ettinger also noted that Rep. Jim Hagedorn (a conservative Republican who represented 1 st district until his death in February) had barely won his races against Democrat Dan Feehan for 2018 and 2020.
Finstad views these election results in a new way.
His special election win was described by him as “the largest margin of victory since 2014 in the First District, and it was also the highest percentage of votes a Republican for Congress received in the district since 2004”.
Ettinger stated that he expected Feehan would run again for the seat this year. But Feehan demurred. Ettinger stated that he was concerned about the district being represented by someone too ideological for what is considered a “purple district”.
Ettinger, who lives near Austin, said that “I was pretty certain the Republican who would win the race would be somebody doctrinaire and would not represent the district.”
After retiring from Hormel, the ex-business executive decided to run for 1 district seat. He made a promise to keep a distance from the Democratic Party at times and he would not be a candidate for the office.
Ettinger is a strong underdog in this race, having given and loaned at least $900,000. One reason is the power of incumbency.
Cindy Rugeley, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, stated that Finstad has all the perks of office that are in his favor.
Finstad, as an incumbent has an office expense account which allows him to hire staff that can cater to individual constituents’ needs. David FitzSimmons (Finstad’s senior advisor) said that he has hired Hagedorn’s staffers as well as others from different backgrounds. He plans to open two district offices in New Ulm, his hometown, and one in Rochester.
Finstad can now increase his visibility by attending official functions in the district, and sending out official emails and postal mail releases to constituents regarding his positions on issues as well as the votes he has taken.
Finstad, as an incumbent, is better placed to get support from his party for his reelection. The GOP cannot afford to lose the 1 District seat in the narrowly divided U.S House. Finstad’s status as an incumbent makes him attractive to donors and outside groups that are spending money to support his candidacy.
Jacob Rubashkin, Inside Elections, stated that being an incumbent can be very beneficial because of the media attention and relationships with national donors and activists.
Finstad was appointed to the House Agriculture Committee and House Education and Labor Committee. Finstad, as a member on the agriculture panel will be able work on the farm bill which is a priority for his district. The hearings are held in the weeks leading up to the election.
Rugeley stated, “When there is something in the Ag (Agriculture) Bill, the local media would call him for comment.”
Finstad has adhered to the House GOP party lines in his brief time in office. Finstad voted against the Inflation Reduction Act (a Biden health initiative and clean energy initiative) and opposed President Obama’s attempts to forgive student loan debt. Finstad, like most Republican candidates is blaming Democrats to cause inflation and a rise in crime.
According to the freshman lawmaker, he believes that he is “very much aligned” with southern Minnesota’s majority.
He said, “What I hear most than anything else is the hardships in the current economy.” The ripple effect of rising energy costs has led to inflation in almost all areas. The Democrats, Speaker Pelosi, and President Biden are doing little to improve the situation. They increase government spending and reduce domestic energy production, which both fuel inflation.
Finstad stated that he will have to balance his duties in Washington with campaigning in the district in order to run as an incumbent. Next week, the House will return from its summer recess.
He said, “I also have to set up a congressional office” and perform official duties such as voting in Washington. It takes longer, but it’s a great privilege to represent the people of south Minnesota.
Ettinger will try to be an independent voice in the district, who unlike his opponent is open to disagreeing with his party leaders.
Ettinger stated, “Sometimes it can be difficult to support your party,”
Former businessman and supporter of both Republicans and Democrats, said that if all legislators followed their party line, “you could just send robotics to Washington.”
Finstad has the 1 stDistrict Seat to lose with just two months before the general election. Talk of a GOP wave has been muted by Biden’s improved poll numbers and the backlash against Roe v. Wade’s overturning by the Supreme Court. Most analysts still believe Finstad will win.
Rugeley stated, “It’s an Republican-leaning District.”
Rubashkin, of Inside Elections, said that the “biggest difference in dynamic” will be due to turnout.
Rubashkin stated that Ettinger was able to benefit from a higher turnout in Democratic areas such as Olmstead County. This reflects the Democratic enthusiasm edge in special election post-Dobbsthis. Rubashkin said that in a general election, however, both parties are more likely to be on equal footing than one party being motivated to vote for an unrelated race. Finstad should have a slight advantage.
The newly drawn district, which was not in the Aug. 9, special election, is also at play. It could have an impact on the race but it’s not thought to be very significant.