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MN-07: Peterson Moves from Lean Democratic to Toss Up

Wasserman Photo
September 6, 2019

Despite sitting in a heavily Republican Minnesota seat, House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson escaped without serious GOP challengers in both 2016 and 2018. But that won't be the case this cycle: on Tuesday, former Republican Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach announced she would run against the 15-term incumbent in 2020, and her entry moves MN-07 from Lean Democratic to Toss Up.

In an era defined by sky-high polarization and straight-ticket voting, Peterson is an extreme outlier. No one else in the House represents a seat where the opposite party's presidential candidate received more than 55 percent of the vote in 2016, but Peterson - first elected in 1990 - has managed to defy political gravity a sprawling, rural district that voted for President Trump by a landslide 61 percent to 31 percent.

The reason? Peterson, 75, is serving his second stint as chair of the Ag Committee, where his policy expertise is widely respected across the aisle and his farm bill-crafting clout is prized by farmers in his sugar beet and corn-rich district. Moreover, his personal style - including flying his own plane around the sprawling district and showing up to events unstaffed in jeans and cowboy boots - holds undeniable local appeal.

Despite his close working relationship with Nancy Pelosi, the blunt-talking Peterson has also never been regarded as an ideologue back home: he's the last founding member of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition still serving, and he's long taken pride in never receiving a perfect score from any interest group. In 2016, he mildly endorsed Bernie Sanders and then disclosed that he couldn't bring himself to vote for Hillary Clinton.

In fact, just last month, Peterson hosted Trump-appointed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue for a bipartisan discussion at the iconic Minnesota Farmfest at a time when China's retaliation against Trump's trade tariffs is putting serious stress on district farmers.

Even so, there are signs Peterson's grasp on the 7th CD has been gradually slipping. As rural Minnesota has drifted towards the GOP, Peterson's margin of victory has shrunk in each of his past three elections. In 2016, he defeated Air Force veteran Dave Hughes by just 53 percent to 47 percent despite outspending Hughes $1.2 million to $19,000. In 2018, Peterson won a rematch by an even narrower 52 percent to 48 percent.

Peterson could be even more vulnerable in 2020 with Trump atop the ballot. Given past patterns, it's likely 50,000 to 80,000 additional voters beyond the 281,000 who cast ballots here in 2018 will show up to vote. And, these casual, less politically engaged voters are less likely to be aware of or value Peterson's clout as Ag chair and independence from national Democrats. They're more likely to cast straight tickets.

Enter Fischbach, who launched her bid calling Peterson an enabler of "the socialist agenda of Nancy Pelosi, Ilhan Omar and the rest of the squad." Fischbach is married to the head of Minnesota's largest pro-life group and will have access to a large fundraising network of social conservatives. And unlike Hughes, whom she must first get past in a primary, she will have strong backing from the NRCC (which sat out the past two cycles) 

Fischbach, who grew up in suburban St. Paul and holds a law degree, was first elected to the state Senate from the St. Cloud area in 1996, eventually rising to Senate president. In 2018, she briefly rose to lieutenant governor when Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to the Senate, creating awkward bedfellows. She also ran on a ticket in 2018 with Tim Pawlenty, who lost his comeback bid for governor in the GOP primary.

However, Fischbach isn't without vulnerabilities. In 2018, she created a minor maelstrom by trying to simultaneously keep her state Senate seat while filling the lieutenant governor vacancy (at the time, Republicans held a 34 to 33 seat majority in the chamber that depended on Fischbach's vote). Ultimately, Fischbach backed down and resigned, but the legal battle ended up costing taxpayers $146,000.

More fundamentally, Fischbach's 23-year tenure in St. Paul could give Democrats an avenue to call her a Twin Cities "career politician" and could rob Republicans of the line of attack that Peterson has been in office too long and it's time for change. Peterson and Democrats could also highlight Fischbach's movement conservatism and Twin Cities roots to cast her as a poor fit for a farm belt seat with populist roots.

The last time DC Republicans took serious interest here was in 2014, when they recruited state Sen. Torrey Westrom. Westrom, who is blind and had a good personal story, raised $1 million. But Democrats accused him of trying to shut down the state government and taking "more than $300,000 in reimbursements from taxpayers over his two decades in St. Paul." Peterson prevailed, 54 percent to 46 percent.

Look for Democrats to reprise those same attacks against Fischbach, who has an extensive St. Paul paper trail to litigate. Furthermore, they will seek to tie Fischbach to Trump's tariffs and make the case that with family farmers in distress, Peterson's clout and presence as a check are more essential than ever. For her part, Fischbach has praised Trump for taking on China for "sticking it to farmers for years."

Of course, the biggest question is whether Peterson decides to run again in 2020. On one hand, Peterson just regained his gavel and leaving a powerful post so soon after winning the majority would be atypical. But on the other, Peterson must decide whether he wants to wage a multi-million dollar campaign for what would likely be one final term, considering Minnesota is likely to lose a district after the 2020 Census.

If Peterson does run again (Minnesota's filing deadline isn't until next June), he'll have powerful allies seeking to ease his workload. American Crystal Sugar, a highly influential farmer-owned sugar cooperative based in the Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota, has already created and funded a $300,000 SuperPAC, the Committee for Stronger Rural Committees, with the sole mission of reelecting Peterson. 

It's an astonishing political feat that Peterson has survived this long in such a red seat, and if he were to forgo reelection, the 7th CD would almost certainly fall to Republicans. But for now, it's shaping up to be a highly competitive fight.



Image: Collin Peterson Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call