Jim Hagedorn has done this before — three times, in fact.
The Minnesota Republican has never won any of those congressional races in the 1st District, but he’s trying again this year. Hagedorn came within a point of defeating Democratic-Farmer-Labor Rep. Tim Walz in 2016, and now that it’s an open seat — Walz is running for governor — Hagedorn sees another opening.
First, though, he has to secure the party nod in Tuesday’s primary against state Sen. Carla Nelson. The 1st District GOP endorsed Hagedorn at its convention in April, but Nelson decided to continue her campaign.
The primary is dividing members of Congress and influential corners of the Republican Party between those who are loyal to Hagedorn and those who’d like to see a fresh face, who’s also a woman, win the GOP nomination for what’s likely to be a competitive race against Democrat Dan Feehan.
Feehan, an Iraq War veteran and former Pentagon official, has the DFL endorsement and is heavily favored in Tuesday’s primary against small-business owner Colin Minehart. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the general election contest as a Toss-up.
Minnesota GOP Reps. Erik Paulsen and Tom Emmer, the deputy chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, have backed Hagedorn and Emmer’s chief of staff is running his campaign. Former Minnesota GOP Rep. John Kline has also donated to Hagedorn.
He’s received support from members outside Minnesota too, including from North Carolina’s Patrick T. McHenry, the chief deputy whip.
Nelson has picked up financial support from female members, including New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, the head of recruitment for the NRCC.
State Sen. Karin Housley, who’s running for Senate in Minnesota, has donated to Nelson, as have influential national donors such as Richard Uihlein and Paul Singer. The outside group Singer established to help women in primaries has endorsed her. But despite bundling money to her campaign, Winning for Women has no plans to make any independent expenditures for Nelson before the primary.
One late potential game-changer: The National Rifle Association backed Nelson last week, which her campaign immediately turned into a digital ad.
Up until that endorsement, Hagedorn likely had the edge because of his residual name recognition, said one Republican who’s impartial in the primary. The NRA endorsement, she said, makes the outcome of the primary less clear.
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Fourth time’s the charm?
Hagedorn made plans to run for a fourth time weeks after narrowly losing the 2016 race, traveling to Washington to lay the groundwork for his 2018 campaign.
That he’d come so close to defeating Walz without much money or any outside involvement in a race that wasn’t supposed to be competitive emboldened him to try again this year.
Hagedorn’s father, Tom Hagerdorn, served in Congress, and he spent much of his childhood and early career in Washington.
He first ran for the 1st District in 2010 but dropped out of the race after failing to get the GOP endorsement. In 2014, he did what Nelson’s trying to do this year: defeat the candidate who won the GOP endorsement. Walz beat him in the general election by 9 points in a good year for Republicans nationally.
“I have been working this district almost full-time now for five years and am well-established in the Republican Party,” Hagedorn said in an interview Thursday, arguing that he’s the most conservative candidate who’s loyal to President Donald Trump.
Some would say he’s too established in the party, though. Hagedorn has been dating and is now engaged to Jennifer Carnahan, the chairwoman of the Minnesota Republican Party. But Hagedorn insists his personal relationship had nothing to do with him securing the endorsement of the 1st District GOP.
“No offense to Jennifer, but I certainly didn’t need any help winning the endorsement,” Hagedorn said. He won the endorsement with 76 percent of the vote to Nelson’s 21 percent.
The state party has been on the ground in southern Minnesota for almost a year to help identify base GOP voters to help Hagedorn in the primary and general election.
“This year, the Republican Party of Minnesota is carrying the ground game for our candidate — and our efforts stretch from Mankato to Rochester and every county in between,” Carnahan said in an email Thursday.
Hagedorn knew he wanted to upgrade his operation for 2018, and national Republicans say he’s running a better campaign than he did two years ago. He’d raised $850,000 by July 25, the end of the pre-primary reporting period, compared to $209,000 at the same point in 2016. He said he’s gone to 85 parades and every county fair. He’s running ads on cable TV.
A new candidate
Nelson’s supporters think she’s the only candidate who can put this seat in play for the GOP in November.
“If you believe that the environment is working against House Republicans, renominating someone who managed to lose with President Trump on the ballot probably isn’t the best scenario for trying to pick up an offensive seat,” a strategist close to the Nelson campaign said.
Hagedorn also isn’t without baggage. As a blogger, he wrote disparaging comments about women and Native Americans that surfaced in his 2014 campaign and could become easy fodder for Democrats looking to attack him this year.
“If someone wants to run a political correctness and identity politics campaign against us, we’ll see what happens,” Hagedorn said this week.
The NRCC tried to recruit Nelson to run in 2014, but family health issues kept her out of the race.
For this race, her campaign decided TV was an inefficient way to get its message out and has been focused on digital and direct mail with a big emphasis on knocking on doors. She’d raised $488,000 by the end of the pre-primary period, including a $50,000 personal loan.
Nelson’s mailers try to paint a contrast between her service in the state Legislature — she served a term in the state House and has been in the state Senate since 2011 — and Hagedorn’s record as a perennial candidate.
“What has Jim Hagedorn done for Minnesota?” reads one mailer from the Nelson campaign. Next to an image of Hagedorn’s face appear 11 different translations of the word “nothing.”