Presidential race, farm economy loom large over 1st District contest

Two people having a conversation.
Dan Feehan, pictured above on the right, makes a campaign stop at a hotel construction site in Rochester, Minn., to visit with union workers.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

On the eastern edge of Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District sits a grocery store along the abbreviated downtown St. Charles strip. Outside that store, local resident Jim Decker talked politics.

“I’m getting a little bit fed up with Democrats.”

St. Charles is a town of fewer than 4,000 people in southern Minnesota. It’s about half an hour from Rochester.

Decker, 74, said he’ll vote to reelect Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn next year.

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“The Democrat Party has gotten too liberal for me anyway. It’s just like they want to give everything away and immigrants come into the country and they just want to hand them everything. I just don’t go for that anymore.”

A man stands for a picture in a parking lot.
74-year-old Jim Decker, a voter from St. Charles, Minn., says Democrats have swung too far left.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Hagedorn said that sentiment prevails in the 1st District, which Donald Trump won by nearly 15 points in 2016.

Trump leveraged his popularity here two years later to help Hagedorn eke out a narrow victory over Democrat Dan Feehan. The seat was open then because Tim Walz left to run for governor.

Hagedorn said he would “roll out the red carpet” if Trump returns to Minnesota to campaign for him. He said the 2020 campaign will be a referendum on Republican and Democratic ideology.

“You’re going to have President Trump over on one side. You’re going to have a Democrat, far left probably somebody like Elizabeth Warren on the other side and then candidates down the row and we’re going to show the differences party by party,” he said.

Those differences would start, Hagedorn said, with impeachment but also include Medicare for All, free four-year college for everyone and the Green New Deal.

Democrat Dan Feehan said he does not support the Green New Deal, free four-year college or Medicare for All. Feehan calls Hagedorn “hyper-partisan” and accused him of favoring monied-special interests over his constituents on issues ranging from health care to trade policy.

“This is a simple principle of leadership,” Feehan said. “Are you fighting for me? Do you understand my challenges and are you working hard to solve them? That’s what this campaign, our campaign embodies and what I hear from people now is a strong amount of frustration.”

Feehan said he is optimistic about his chances against Hagedorn next year even though he lost in the 2018 midterms that gave victories to so many Democrats that they won control of the House. Conditions are different now, particularly in the vast farm economy, Feehan said.

“I’ve talked to a lot of farmers throughout this harvest who have had a terrible year and on top of which there is a trade war ongoing which has only made them a fraction of whole of where they would have been had this trade war not started.”

Hagedorn acknowledges hard times for agriculture. He blames China for targeting American farmers. He also predicted the U.S. will prevail in the protracted negotiations.

Feehan has the backing of Walz and Minnesota’s two U.S. Senators, but before he can take on Hagedorn again, he must defeat a DFL primary challenger.

That challenger, Ralph Kaehler, who farms near St. Charles, is talking a lot about his roots in the region.

A man stands in front of a red barn.
Lifelong 1st Congressional District resident and DFL congressional candidate Ralph Kaehler accuses his DFL primary opponent Dan Feehan and Republican-incumbent Jim Hagedorn of moving back to the District for political reasons.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Kaehler and Feehan agree on the major issues, but Kaehler says he’s the only candidate in the race who didn’t come back to Minnesota purely for politics.

Hagedorn grew up on a southern Minnesota farm, but spent most of his professional life in Washington. Feehan returned to Minnesota to run for Congress after serving in the Iraq war, working as a teacher and as a Defense Department official.

“I just think it’s important that you live and work in the district prior to running a campaign so you have a better understanding of the district,” Kaheler said. “I’m a fourth generation family farmer.”