(Bloomberg Businessweek) — Representative Collin Peterson’s reelection campaign got a call this summer about some trouble downstate in Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District. Farmers supporting the 15-term Democratic congressman, who chairs the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, had put Peterson placards up along a stretch of highway. The problem, according to the worried campaign volunteer, was that they were sitting next to signs for President Donald Trump.
“What do you mean, a problem?” an aide asked the volunteer, according to Peterson’s retelling of the conversation. “How do you think he gets elected?”
The exchange sums up the question at the core of this closely watched race. Peterson may be a Democrat. But he’s pro-gun rights and pro-life, and a founding member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition. “At one time there were a lot of people like me” in Congress, he says. “I’m the only pro-life Democrat left. I’m the only NRA A+ Democrat left.”
So far, his social and fiscal conservatism has helped him fend off Republican challengers as his largely rural district in Minnesota has gone deep red. Trump swept the district by 31 points four years ago, making this the most Republican House district in America still represented by a Democrat. Will enough Trump voters split their tickets this time around and send Peterson back to Washington? Republicans are betting no. They see 2020 as their moment to flip the seat.
Peterson has his most formidable competitor in 30 years in Michelle Fischbach, a former Minnesota lieutenant governor and the first woman president of the state senate, who’s been endorsed by Trump. She’s hoping that endorsement and her emphasis on low taxes, border security, law and order, and other conservative issues will help her overcome the challenge of going up against a veteran House Agriculture Committee member in a farm-heavy district.
“She’s raising money. She knows how to run a campaign, and she’s viewed as a better financial investment by outside donors than previous challengers have been,” says Kathryn Pearson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Campaign analysts at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rate the race a toss-up.
Fischbach, 54, is touting a “fresh outlook.” She says voters “are tired of Collin Peterson. They are tired of Nancy Pelosi.” And she says Peterson “only votes with Republicans when it makes him look good in the district.” She’s also sought to tie the 76-year-old congressman to a “socialist” Democratic agenda. Peterson, who voted against impeaching Trump and who enjoys hunting bears and deer on his farm when not on Capitol Hill, says attempts to portray him as aligned with progressives such as Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez show that Republicans “have nothing else than to make up stuff.”
The two candidates aren’t far apart on fundraising, with Peterson taking in $1.23 million from January 2019 through July 22, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Fischbach brought in $1 million over the same period. She has significantly outspent Peterson, however.
But Peterson has far outraised Fischbach when it comes to money from corporate political action committees. A pro-Peterson SuperPAC backed in part by sugar beet growers, the Committee for Stronger Rural Communities, started last year hoping to raising more than $1 million by Election Day. It reached that goal last month, according to Kevin Price, vice president of government affairs at American Crystal Sugar Co.
The district is the biggest sugar beet producer in the U.S. “Collin is sugar, and sugar is Collin,” Price says. Kelly Erickson, a farmer and chair of the CSRC steering committee, says losing Peterson as agriculture chairman would be a blow. “You have the chairman of House Agriculture, and you know what kind of power that yields, not only for agriculture in the 7th District but agriculture all over the U.S.,” he says. “Fischbach would be a freshman and sitting in the back of the room. How much good do you think she could do for agriculture?”
Supporters of Peterson also point to his centrist politics, ability to work with Republicans, and success in securing funding for rural hospitals. “He is practical. He is tough. He understands his district extremely well,’’ says Tom Vilsack, former agriculture secretary under President Obama.
Republicans contend it’s time “to bring in a different perspective,” in the words of Minnesota state lawmaker Tim Miller, a U.S. House candidate in 2018. Voters, he says, “don’t want someone who is going to come in and be a radical change, and that’s why I think Fischbach is a really good fit.”
If Peterson loses, it will be another member down for congressional Democrats’ Blue Dog Coalition, which he helped found in the 1990s. The caucus had more than 54 members in 2009 but was decimated in the 2010 and 2012 elections. It rebounded in 2016 and 2018, and membership now stands at 26. The Blue Dogs’ strong 2018 results alongside the emergence of Ocasio-Cortez’s progressive “squad” shows the ideological split within the Democratic Party.
Peterson says his campaign is doing what it’s always done. If he’s reelected, he will immediately be busy with work on the 2023 farm bill. “They are spending a lot more money than I have, and they did that in 2014, too,” he says of Republicans. “We’ll just see what happens.”
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