AUSTIN, Minn. - Before running as a Democrat for southern Minnesota's congressional seat, Jeff Ettinger's political identity eluded even some close to him.

The 63-year-old multimillionaire former CEO of Hormel Foods, a Fortune 500 company, had donated to both Democrats and Republicans. Ettinger said he is "not pro-abortion," but he supports the right to have the procedure. He thinks federal government spending during the COVID-19 pandemic went too far and contributed slightly to rising inflation, and he believes any possible student loan forgiveness should be limited to certain incomes.

Bonnie Rietz, who's known Ettinger for more than two decades, said she had no idea which party he would represent when she first heard of his congressional bid. "I thought, is it going to be Republican or Democrat?" said Rietz, a former Austin mayor who serves with Ettinger on the Hormel Foundation's board of directors.

Supporters like Rietz believe Ettinger's moderate and bipartisan leanings make him an ideal fit for Minnesota's First District, which has elected both Republicans and Democrats to Congress over the past 20 years. Others are skeptical that Ettinger can energize the Democratic base enough during a midterm election year expected to favor Republicans.

Leah Hanson, who helps lead the progressive group Indivisible Minnesota in the St. Peter and Mankato area, said Ettinger's effort to win over voters in her group left them disappointed. He mainly stressed "how much better he would be" than his Republican opponent, Brad Finstad.

"That's not a position that is empowering to young people or progressive voters," Hanson said.

Finstad is a former state legislator and Trump-administration U.S. Department of Agriculture official who is favored to win the seat in an Aug. 9 special election to serve the final months of the late GOP Rep. Jim Hagedorn's term. Finstad and Ettinger are expected to have a rematch in November with a full congressional term on the line. Two cannabis legalization party candidates, Haroun McClellan and Richard Reisdorf, are also on the August ballot.

Before launching his campaign, Ettinger had never run for political office. He donated to some Democrats such as Tim Walz when the now-governor was representing the First District. And in past cycles he supported some prominent Republicans as well as the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Ettinger said he soured on the Republican Party during Trump's presidency. "What he stands for and talks about in the party is something I don't agree with or believe in," he said.

He was frustrated with how Hagedorn represented the district, too. Hagedorn, Ettinger said, was less approachable than previous First District representatives such as Walz, Tim Penny and Gil Gutknecht.

The Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol and Hagedorn's vote against certifying the presidential election results pushed Ettinger to run, though he did not announce his campaign until after Hagedorn died this past February.

"I feel like the district would be better represented by somebody who brings the business community leadership background that I bring and the more independent voice and willingness to be more moderate," Ettinger said.

Raised in Pasadena, Calif., Ettinger moved to Austin three decades ago to join Hormel's law department. He rose through the ranks to oversee the Jennie-O Turkey Store before being tapped to lead the entire company in 2005.

Under Ettinger's leadership, Hormel grew beyond its roots in meat processing and products, acquiring Skippy Peanut Butter, Wholly Guacamole and other consumer brands. From the time he took over as CEO to his departure in 2016, annual revenue nearly doubled to $9.5 billion. The company's market value jumped substantially in that time, rising from $4.3 billion to more than $20 billion.

Embracing a "philosophy of sharing," Ettinger said he expanded the company's profit-sharing with employees and offered them a stock option grant.

Ettinger's term as CEO included a handful of controversies, including animal rights issues and the beginning of price-fixing accusations that have yet to be resolved in court.

As chief executive, Ettinger also had to navigate lingering tensions with the unions representing Hormel employees. He joined the company just a few years after the contentious P-9 strike, which tore apart families in the southern Minnesota town, although tensions had improved by the time he became CEO.

The union representing Hormel's meatpacking employees in Minnesota, UFCW Local 663, has not made an endorsement in the race. But Local 663 organizing director Rena Wong said Ettinger is remembered as being responsive to the union's diverse workers and staff.

"Our understanding talking to members, Jeff Ettinger is a part of that community. He goes to church with our members, he and his wife are active in local organizations," Wong said. "He's a decent guy."

Ettinger sees a parallel between how the strike divided Austin and how modern politics divides America. If elected, he said he would seek to tone down the rhetoric and govern respectfully in hopes of reducing polarization.

"Maybe we can find ways to have that happen less," Ettinger said.

In Congress, Ettinger said he would vote to codify abortion rights into federal law despite his personal belief in alternatives to the procedure.

He would push for lower- and middle-class tax cuts, to aid small family farms and to tighten government spending.

Student loan debt cancellation, for example, should be targeted to certain income levels, professions or those misled or defrauded by for-profit colleges, Ettinger said. He supports expanding Pell grants and technical education programs and scholarships.

"I think the government can play a proactive role in helping address people's needs, but you need to focus," Ettinger said.

Finstad, Ettinger's GOP opponent, said Democrats are "saying that they want to run and get elected to fix things that they themselves broke." Ettinger called Finstad a "career government guy" who likely won't effect much change in Washington.

Ettinger has kicked in $400,000 of his own money to the race. Both he and Finstad had about a quarter of a million dollars in campaign cash left to spend at the end of June.

In Austin, Ettinger is known as someone who cares deeply about his community.

The Hormel Foundation, whose board Ettinger chairs, has invested in nonprofits, city projects and scholarships for local high school students.

Former Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm said Ettinger's "heart is in Austin." Past Hormel executives made their money and left the town after retiring, Stiehm said. Ettinger and his wife, LeeAnn, have lived in the same Austin home for 27 years. Their four children all graduated from Austin High School.

"You've got a millionaire, ex-CEO of Hormel who wants to stay in Austin and work for its betterment," Stiehm said. "I think people are impressed by that."

Staff writers Brooks Johnson and Hunter Woodall contributed to this report.