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DFL candidates seek traction in race to replace Walz in Congress

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DFL candidate Dan Feehan met with supporters in Rochester.
DFL candidate for Minnesota's 1st Congressional District Dan Feehan met with supporters in Rochester earlier this week, where they talked strategy for Saturday's endorsing convention.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

Dan Feehan believes his two tours of duty in Iraq will appeal to voters in Minnesota's 1st Congressional District and help push him over the top this weekend when the district's Democrats meet to endorse a candidate.

He also has one more advantage: money. Feehan has outraised all his opponents, bringing in $566,000 since the start of his campaign.

That will be a key talking point for Feehan as he tries to sway delegates this weekend gathering in Le Sueur, selling the message that he's the only candidate who has the fundraising prowess to beat a Republican in the fall and replace DFL U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, who's stepping down to run for governor.

The stakes in this race are high for the DFL. Walz barely won in 2016, and most counties in the district voted solidly in favor of President Donald Trump. It's a district that the Republican Party nationally believes it can flip.

Feehan is among a wide field of candidates who will be vying for his party's stamp and who've been working across southern Minnesota to swing delegates to their side as the convention nears.

Earlier this week, Feehan drove from Mankato to Rochester to tell supporters that he'd added a few more delegates to his base. "I'm really excited by that. It means good energy, great momentum and keeping our positive message up," Feehan told the group.

Feehan spent several years teaching in Indiana but says it's service in Iraq and at the Pentagon during the Obama administration that helps him stand out.

"Those experiences of being in war and taking care of other people's lives and of making policy on behalf of millions of service members make me not just a strong candidate but would make me strong legislator," he said.

While it may be hard for delegates to ignore his fundraising prowess, Feehan's money has also been a source of criticism. Opponents point out that the largest share of his donations are coming from outside the state, a detail they say underscores the fact that Feehan hasn't lived in Minnesota since he was 14, and only moved to Mankato last year. His wife and two kids are still in Washington, D.C.

Feehan said endorsements and support from national groups that support veterans running for office helped bring in outside money.

Candidate Joe Sullivan is an attorney and clean energy advocate also living in Mankato. He has raised roughly half of what Feehan has brought in but says endorsements from conservation and labor groups are evidence of strong local support.

"Environmentalists and the building trades don't always see eye-to-eye, but they are both supporting this campaign," he said.

Sullivan said if he's elected, he'd work to bring broadband to the area and secure congressional funding to replace southern Minnesota's aging wastewater infrastructure to spur economic development in rural areas.

In Rochester, candidate Rich Wright is counting on relatively high name recognition to boost his chances at the convention. Wright is a lawyer who has run for the state Legislature twice before.

For all the time he's spent on the campaign trail, he said that health care costs are the top issue he hears about. He would support big changes to the health care system.

"For me, let's go strictly to single payer Medicare-for-all, cradle-to-grave coverage," Wright said. "You're born into it and it goes all the way until we move on to the next phase of our existence."

Candidate Vicki Jensen of Owatonna served one term in the state Senate, which she said makes her a qualified candidate to go to Washington. Jensen, who worked on a farm and then sold insurance, said she hears about the cost of health care a lot, too. She would support lowering the age of eligibility for Medicare down to 55 as one part of a larger solution.

"For me, this health insurance conversation is how we want to live as individuals. I don't believe we are a free country if we're making those really big decisions — where we work, how long we work, where we live — based on whether we have access to a group health plan," she said. "I think we can do better."

Johnny Akzam from Rochester and Bob Ries are also in the race.

Feehan, Sullivan, Wright and Jensen, all four say they will drop out of the campaign if they don't get the party's endorsement this weekend.

On the Republican side, 2016 candidate Jim Hagedorn and state Senator Carla Nelson are running. Nelson says she intends to go to the primary if Hagedorn gets the GOP endorsement.