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After taking a pounding from Congressman Tim Walz in the 2012 general election, Republicans in the 1st Congressional District appear to be dusting themselves off and getting serious about preventing the Mankato Democrat from winning a fifth term.

Republicans look to Rochester for Walz-beater

State Sen. Carla Nelson, left, says she is being encouraged to run but hasn’t made a decision yet. State Rep. Mike Benson, also of Rochester, is already in the race. (Staff photos: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

State Sen. Carla Nelson, left, says she is being encouraged to run but hasn’t made a decision yet. State Rep. Mike Benson, also of Rochester, is already in the race. (Staff photos: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

1st District GOP congressional field puts emphasis on key population center

After taking a pounding from Congressman Tim Walz in the 2012 general election, Republicans in the 1st Congressional District appear to be dusting themselves off and getting serious about preventing the Mankato Democrat from winning a fifth term.

Three candidates have entered the race to date, and Republicans in Washington, D.C., have already spent money in the southern Minnesota district, suggesting they mean to play ball there despite Walz’s consistent electoral success. Nathan Gonzalez, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said he sees the race as one in which Republicans are still looking for a candidate.

“Republicans are determined to play offense in Minnesota’s 1st District,” Gonzalez said in an email. “They are still searching for a candidate, but they don’t want Walz to get a free ride. Walz has proven to be a tough incumbent to defeat, so it’s up to Republicans to prove that 2014 will be any different.”

The district spans the breadth of southern Minnesota between the Wisconsin and South Dakota borders.

Two of the announced candidates are from the Rochester area, the growing health care hub and most populous part of the district. State Rep. Mike Benson, R-Rochester, got in the race shortly after this year’s legislative session ended. Aaron Miller, an Army reservist from nearby Byron who has served in Iraq, Afghanistan and East Africa, got in the race last month. Earlier this month, Jim Hagedorn, of Blue Earth in the middle of the district, entered the race. Hagedorn has spent much of his adult life in Washington, D.C., and is the son of a Minnesota congressman, Tom Hagedorn, who served four terms in the 1970s and 1980s.

And waiting in the wings is another Rochester Republican: state Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester. She told Capitol Report she being encouraged to run but hasn’t made a decision yet.

“The courtship has begun and it’s intense,” Nelson said.

Walz has dominated swing district

The 1st CD comprises conservative farming communities and urban swing districts. But since 2006, when Walz was first elected in an upset victory over Republican incumbent Gil Gutnecht, Walz’s election results have belied the area’s apparent status as a swing district. On many issues, Walz has sided with the moderate views of the district and against Democratic leaders. And he has demonstrated a populist touch at times, most notably when he gained national attention for sponsoring the STOCK Act that prohibited members of Congress and federal employees from engaging in insider trading. Most recently, he broke with President Barack Obama’s push to use military force against the Syrian government in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons on its own people.

“He’s avoided any really killer votes on hot button issues like gun control, and was ready to vote against the Syria attack,” said Minnesota State University-Mankato political science professor Joseph Kunkel.

In 2012, Walz defeated his Republican opponent, Allen Quist, by a commanding 15 percentage points.

But Republicans in the area think their chances are better in a non-presidential year. And they say Walz’s voting record makes him vulnerable. Carol Stevenson, the chair of the 1st CD GOP, said the federal Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, is motivating the Republican base and will figure prominently in the campaign.

“The fact is that when he comes home, he talks like us. When he goes to Washington he votes like [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi,” Stevenson said. “Republicans don’t feel that he matches the district very well at all. His support for Obamacare is really what’s motivating folks here.”

There’s early evidence that Stevenson and Republican activists in the district will have backing from the National Republican Congressional Committee. In March, the NRCC bought web ads against Walz and 19 other Democrats, claiming they were backing President Obama on the sequester. The ad stated: “TIM WALZ SUPPORTS OBAMA’S SEQUESTER… BUT WON’T CUT FUNDING FOR A MUSICAL ON CLIMATE CHANGE.” RNCC press releases throughout the summer have hammered Walz on issues ranging from the Keystone Pipeline to student loan legislation.

Rhett Zenke, chair of the Winona County Republican Party, said fiscal issues like the federal deficit and debt will resonate with voters who find themselves pinched by health care and fuel costs.

“Rep. Walz is going to have some chickens coming home to roost,” Zenke said. “I think we’re going to have some real good issues to tackle him on.”

From rural to urban focus

But before Republicans take their next shot at defeating Walz, they will need to nominate someone from the growing field of candidates. And one point of emerging consensus is that they must field a candidate who can be competitive against Walz in the all-important swing precincts of Rochester. The three state legislative districts that encompass the city have a decades-long history of electing moderate Republicans to serve in St. Paul.

It’s been a different story during Walz’s tenure, however. In Rochester’s two urban districts, 26A and 25B, Walz beat Quist by 26.6 percent and 17.14 percent, respectively. In the more conservative 26B, which is represented by Benson and consists mostly of rural areas along with some of southern Rochester, Walz beat Quist by 4.18 percent. Last year Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney beat Obama by 9 percent there.

In 2010, when Republicans won control of both chambers of the state Legislature, Walz won both of the urban Rochester districts over former state Rep. Randy Demmer, R-Hayfield. Walz has also consistently won other regional centers in the 1st, including Albert Lea, Austin, Mankato and Winona.

It doesn’t appear likely that Republicans can expect to beat Walz by focusing on the conservative-leaning rural areas in southwestern Minnesota. Nelson, who has represented Rochester in the House and Senate for three non-consecutive terms, noted that the GOP’s path to victory goes through Rochester.

“Rochester is always pivotal,” she said. “If you’re going to win as a Republican in the 1st District, or in statewide races as well, you have to win Olmsted County. That’s just a numbers reality.”

Counting the two announced Rochester-area candidates and the potential entry of Nelson, the battle for the city appears to be a substantial theme in Republicans’ candidate recruitment efforts. But Kunkel suggested that Rochester has political leanings that could clash with hardline Republicans who were very influential in 2012 during the Quist/Parry endorsement and primary battle.

“There are these pockets that are going to do better for Democrats — Winona, Mankato, Austin — but Rochester traditionally has been a more Republican leaning-area,” Kunkel said. “But it’s not an anarchist Republican area. It’s been more moderate.”

Hagedorn’s candidacy is but one example that the race isn’t just a squabble among Rochesterites. There has been speculation that the Rochester delegation at next year’s convention could

splinter over the multiple candidacies, to the ultimate benefit of Hagedorn. Stevenson acknowledged there’s been speculation to that effect. But she noted that Hagedorn also has support in Olmsted County.

“To make the assumption that Olmsted County would only vote for Olmsted County people is probably not fair. It could be interesting,” Stevenson said.

Hagedorn has said he will abide by the party’s endorsement, as has Miller. Benson hasn’t committed to the endorsement. That means the prospect exists for the race to go to an August primary. While Stevenson said she would prefer to see the party unite behind the endorsee, she denied that a primary would damage their chances of defeating Walz.

“I’d love to see the endorsed candidate be the one to take on Walz from April on rather than from August on,” Stevenson said. “But I don’t see that it’s a huge disadvantage in going to a primary as far as defeating him. Even August is early for people to begin thinking about the congressional race.”


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