MORGAN, Minn. (FOX 9) - The strange circumstances in the race for southern Minnesota's congressional seat added another twist on Tuesday when the main Democratic candidate tested positive for COVID-19, leaving the Republican nominee to debate a GOP rival.
FarmFest, Minnesota's yearly agriculture celebration, was set to be a big moment for the candidates in the first congressional district. On Aug. 9, voters will decide who serves the final five months of the current term while also sending candidates to the general election for the next two-year term.
But when the candidates took the FarmFest stage on Tuesday morning, Democrat Jeff Ettinger was missing. An announcer said Ettinger would miss the event because of COVID-19.
That might've set up a relaxing morning for Ettinger's Republican opponent, Brad Finstad -- except Finstad was left to debate GOP rival Jeremy Munson, whom he faces in next week's primary.
The odd circumstances started with the February death of U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn. That triggered a special election to fill out the remainder of his term. State officials set the special election on Aug. 9, which is also the date of the regular primary election.
Finstad, a former state representative, and Ettinger, the former Hormel Foods Corp. chief executive, advanced out of their respective primaries in May to face each other next Tuesday. They're also running for a full two-year term in November, and both face intra-party challengers.
That means most voters will see a two-sided ballot: the regular primary is on the front, and the special election is on the back. (Ettinger has turned the confusion into a slogan as he tries to win a seat that Republicans have held the past two terms: "Flip the ballot, flip the district.")
"I think it definitely is confusing. The fact that we’re having a final of the special election on primary day throws a lot of people off," Ettinger said in an interview from his home. "Then the whole back and forth of the ballot. That’s fairly odd. So, we’ve definitely been trying to make sure folks understand that you need to vote on both sides of the ballot – the primary’s on the front and the special election final is on the back."
Ettinger said he would stay home for the next five days and campaign virtually. He was hopeful to resume campaigning just before next Tuesday if his COVID symptoms end before then, he said.
Finstad, who spoke to reporters after his FarmFest appearance, said his strategy hadn't changed because of the two-sided ballot.
"I’m campaigning to win the votes of southern Minnesota folks, wherever they are," Finstad said.
To face Ettinger again in the fall, Finstad must first defeat state Rep. Jeremy Munson in Tuesday's GOP primary. Munson is running despite losing to Finstad in the May special election primary, earning criticism from the Republican Party of Minnesota.
On Tuesday's debate stage, Finstad and Munson offered glancing criticism of one another. Munson said he's the most conservative candidate in the race.
"I’m a fiscal conservative," Munson said. "We need change in Washington, not the compromise bills that have grown significantly and put us $30 trillion in debt. That’s not right."
In turn, Finstad cast himself as a problem solver.
"We have a lot of folks in government right now who love to punch each other in the face, they love to call names, they love to scream, they love to lie," Finstad said. "But they don’t get anything done."
DFL Gov. Tim Walz held the congressional seat for more than a decade, but the district has drifted Republican in recent years. Hagedorn won by less than 1 percentage point in 2018 before carrying the district by 3 percentage points two years later.
Ettinger is betting that a moderate Democrat can retake the district.
"My personal opinion is we need more moderates of any stripe. It seems the Republican party has been purging itself of moderates. I’ve been welcomed so far by the Democratic party’s bigger tent," he said.
Inflation, which is at a 41-year high, is a key issue in this fall's midterms. Consumer prices rose by 9.1% in June, far outpacing wage gains.
Finstad said input costs rose 200% to 300% when he planted corn at his farm this spring. He blames price increases on President Joe Biden's administration and Democrats in Congress.
"I would’ve asked (Ettinger), what’s going to be different if you get elected?" Finstad said. "What agenda or people will you push for or work with to change that narrative? I haven’t heard that vision yet."
Ettinger said Finstad is oversimplifying the blame.
"People are feeling squeezed right now," Ettinger said. "Mr. Finstad enjoys just blaming it all on the current administration yet, clearly, it was kicked off by a global pandemic and we have global inflation."
Ettinger said he was concerned by a proposal released by the Republican Study Committee, a group of House Republicans, advocating for the phasing out of several farm support programs.