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As GOP's Miller campaigns against Walz, one challenger won't go away

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Jim Hagedorn campaigning in downtown Mankato.
First District Republican congressional candidate Jim Hagedorn campaigning in downtown Mankato.
Mark Zdechlik / MPR News

Aaron Miller says he's focused on beating Minnesota 1st District DFL Rep. Tim Walz in the fall election. But there's still one guy Miller needs to beat this summer.

Fellow Republican Jim Hagedorn, 52, initially backed Miller after the Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran won the GOP endorsement. Then Hagedorn changed his mind. He's challenged Miller in the Aug. 12 primary, arguing that Miller, a first-time candidate, wasn't campaigning aggressively enough.

With party support and a huge financial edge, Miller is the clear favorite to win the Republican primary, observers say. Hagedorn, though, has some name recognition — his father represented southern Minnesota in Congress three decades ago — and he's knocking on doors across southern Minnesota, determined to make it a contest.

On a recent visit to Mankato, Hagedorn popped in and out of businesses to introduce himself and drop off campaign brochures. He talked up his political philosophy without mentioning that he's challenging Miller in the primary.

"Things in Washington, I think, are kind of out of hand -- too much big government, too much spending," he told a potential voter. "That's why we're running."

Long-time Republican Leroy Vetsch was an early supporter of Hagedorn but said he's not sure which way he'll vote in the primary.

"I'm torn between these two guys," said Vetsch, who's from Brewster, Minn., near Worthington. "They're both conservative and they pretty much believe in the same basic principles that I believe in, so I haven't made my decisions yet as to what I'm going to do."

Miller and Hagedorn talk a lot about Walz as they campaign. Both are calling for a smaller, less restrictive federal government and for the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act. Both say Walz is vulnerable even though Walz won the 2012 election by more than 15 percentage points.

Miller, 45, said his newcomer status in politics along with his military and business experience are his selling points.

"Initially folks were surprised because, you know, here's a new guy on the political scene never ran for office before," he said. "I had to introduce myself but as I've introduced myself to the voters they've realized that that's a strong suit."

Miller also has an overwhelming financial advantage, ending June with more than $107,000 in campaign cash, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Hagedorn had less than $12,000.

"Whoever's got the organizational ability to make the phone calls, find out who's going to be voting in the primary, which way they're leaning and then try to get your call back and get your people to vote, that's the key," said Minnesota State University Mankato political science professor Joe Kunkel.

While older Republican primary-goers might remember Hagedorn's name from his father's time in Congress, Miller's money and backing make him the clear favorite in the primary, Kunkel added.

Hagedorn is undeterred.

"I got back into this race for the right reasons," he said. "The endorsed candidate was not running an active campaign or doing the types of things you had to do to beat an entrenched incumbent."

Miller says he was disappointed when Hagedorn rejoined the race. He says Hagedorn's charge that he's not aggressively campaigning is wrong.

"I think that's a complete fabrication of what we're doing," Miller said. "We're working every day all across the district and we'll continue to do that through November."