By Briana Bierschbach
In a part of Minnesota that’s home to both the Mayo Clinic and a devastated agriculture industry, the coronavirus pandemic has taken center stage in a congressional race that’s shaping up to be neck-and-neck this fall.
Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn and Democrat Dan Feehan, who fought two years ago to one of the closest congressional margins in the country, are rematching this year in a district that’s been hit particularly hard by the virus. Feehan’s second try will test whether Democrats can gain ground in areas where President Donald Trump was broadly popular in 2016.
Stretching across southern Minnesota along the Iowa border, the First District is dotted with farms already buffeted by international trade battles that are now struggling amid widespread restaurant closures. Virus outbreaks in meat processing plants in Austin and Worthington have rattled the region’s ag economy.
The district is also home to tens of thousands of health care workers, including many at Rochester’s Mayo Clinic, which has been heavily involved in COVID-19 testing and research.
“Not only do we have the agriculture influence, but our rural communities that surround us, many, many of those people work in the city and they work at Mayo Clinic, so they understand the health aspects of this and the economic aspects of it,” said Rochester Mayor Kim Norton, a former DFL state lawmaker who is publicly neutral in the race.
Hagedorn and Feehan offer a clear contrast in their views on how best to respond to the pandemic.
Hagedorn is a staunch defender of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic. He cited his own support for the Paycheck Protection Program, an employee-retention tax credit for small businesses and aid for Mayo Clinic and rural hospitals in the district.
He’s also been a vocal critic of Gov. Tim Walz, who ordered closures of schools, bars and restaurants and other public spaces in March to limit the spread of the virus. Walz has started to reopen bars and restaurants with restrictions, but Hagedorn says it’s not enough. He wants a full reopening of the economy.
“We had way too many small businesses and restaurants go broke. Minnesota customers were going over the border to do shopping in South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin and North Dakota, and our businesses and our people have suffered,” said Hagedorn, a former congressional staffer. “I thought he has misplayed this and should have been spending his time protecting those most vulnerable in our long-term care facilities.”
But Democrats say people in the district have struggled to connect with COVID-19 resources that Hagedorn said he’s brought in; and they accuse him of downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic in his social media posts. Hagedorn shared a discredited video on Facebook of two California doctors who said COVID-19 isn’t worse than the flu and dismissed the benefits of social distancing. That video was denounced by medical experts and removed by YouTube for spreading misinformation.
Dr. Rozalina McCoy, a primary care physician and researcher at Mayo Clinic, penned editorials in the district saying she was “shocked” that Hagedorn was “willing to traffic conspiracy theories that downplay the pandemic that has impacted our entire community.”
Feehan said the idea that the public health response is separate from the economy is false. Even some businesses that can reopen haven’t yet, he noted, because they’re worried about a spike in cases and endangering their own employees.
“They are intricately tied together,” said Feehan, a veteran and former teacher who lives in North Mankato. “Our economy will never thrive unless we deal with the public health side, until we deal with COVID, and we continue at the federal level to not deal with it.”
The First District has swung between the two parties over the years, supporting both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, who beat Hillary Clinton in the district four years ago by 15 percentage points.
Before Hagedorn, Walz, a Democrat, represented the district in Congress for 12 years. Hagedorn beat Feehan in 2018 by roughly 1,300 votes out of nearly 300,000 cast.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee quickly put Hagedorn on its list of targets this fall, citing his vote against a bill to lower prescription drug prices and his support of a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act.
Feehan said there’s a direct link to corporate interests that support Hagedorn and the votes he takes in Congress on health care issues, something that’s “especially insidious” during a pandemic.
“It crosses a party line because southern Minnesotans are independent-minded,” Feehan said.
Hagedorn said the prescription drug pricing bill would have “picked winners and losers” and potentially blocked the development of new cures because of how the pharmaceutical industry would have reacted.
The issue is personal for him, Hagedorn said. In February 2019, during a routine checkup, he was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer. He’s now undergoing immunotherapy treatment and doing well, he said.
“I’m a living testament to someone who is using a biopharmaceutical cure that was approved by the FDA almost the day I had been diagnosed,” he said.
Denny Schminke, a Republican activist in Mower County for more than a decade, said he’s struggling to handicap what might happen in the race. A retired Hormel employee, he’s been devastated to see the euthanization of hogs in the area as the food industry struggles.
He’s not sure the pandemic will change people’s votes this fall, but he thinks impassioned opinions on the topic will increase turnout in November.
“People’s teeth are really on edge,” Schminke said. “I see their feelings on COVID being an explanation point behind why they voted the way they were already going to vote.”