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Despite Tough Year, Peterson Seems Safe

Correction Appended

If Rep. Collin Peterson loses this fall, it will probably be because the conservative Minnesota Democrat and Agriculture Committee chairman voted in favor of the House’s cap-and-trade legislation.

That said, the coming Republican wave would have to be a tsunami to sweep Willmar businessman Lee Byberg into office.

First elected in 1990 after serving a decade in the Minnesota state Senate, Peterson, 66, hasn’t had a competitive race since the previous Republican wave in 1994.

Beginning with the 1996 contest and continuing after redistricting reshaped his district in 2002, he has won every general election with no less than 65 percent of the vote. Since 2006, his role as leader of the Agriculture Committee has provided a firewall to ward off potential challengers in Minnesota’s 7th district, which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won with 50 percent in 2008 and President George W. Bush carried with 55 percent in 2004.

A poll taken for Byberg in June, the only public polling available in the race, showed Peterson ahead by double digits. Byberg is also contending with Glen Menze, the 2008 Republican nominee who is this year’s Independence Party nominee.

More importantly, Peterson doesn’t expect that his constituents ‘ other than those who have voted against him in the past ‘ feel the same anger stirring up races in much of the country. Unemployment is low in his heavily agricultural district, he said.

‘If they didn’t hear all this negative stuff from the national press, if they would’ve been isolated from everything the last three to four years, they wouldn’t have even known anything was going on,’ he said. ‘Nothing’s changed.’

Nonetheless, Byberg, 48, might be able to give Peterson a little scare. Byberg was born in Chicago but grew up mostly in Norway, the son of Christian missionary parents. (That explains his Scandinavian brogue: ‘I joke with people that I went to Norway to pick up the Minnesota accent,’ he said.) He moved back to Minnesota when he was 19 and lived with relatives while he finished his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Minnesota. He now works as vice president of operations at Life-Science Innovations, the parent company of Willmar Poultry Country, where he worked previously. Earlier in his career, he worked as an accountant for one of the firms that became PricewaterhouseCoopers and as an economist for Phillips Petroleum Co.

The cap-and-trade vote may be what resonates most among those who vote against Peterson. Agriculture groups worked against the bill, asserting that it would negatively affect farmers. But the Congressman said he voted for the bill only after four to five weeks of negotiating with Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). Those talks produced some key protections for agriculture, including exempting farmers from some Environmental Protection Agency regulations, removing international land use restrictions that would’ve penalized ethanol and putting the Department of Agriculture in charge of any cap-and-trade regulations that would affect agricultural interests instead of the EPA.

‘A lot of people know the only reason I voted for that was Waxman agreed to take my stuff on agriculture. I said at the time I voted for it, that if this was the final bill I’d vote no,’ he explained, adding that he didn’t think the Senate would consider the bill.

To those who are impressed that Peterson heads the Agriculture Committee, Byberg has emphasized that Peterson would lose his chairmanship if Republicans retake control of the House. But Peterson said he wouldn’t mind being ranking member on a committee with such a bipartisan spirit.

‘I would argue on the Ag Committee the ranking member probably has almost as much power as the chairman. The only difference is, when you’re chairman you get to set the agenda, in terms of timing and so forth,’ he said. ‘Frankly, it’d make my life a lot simpler.’

The growing federal debt inspired Byberg’s run for Congress, he said.

‘You basically have a government that today is addicted to spending, and this started a long time ago,’ he said. ‘Now it’s really moving fast. From [President George] Washington to the beginning of Obama’s administration, we added $9 trillion to our debt. Since Obama [took office], we added three more trillion dollars. It was bad enough, but never before have we added so much debt in history. This debt will cripple us.’

The National Republican Congressional Committee moved Byberg to the third tier of its Young Guns program at the end of September.

Byberg raised about $308,000 by the end of the third quarter, including about $150,000 raised between July and September, according to his campaign. He had only about $45,000 on hand at the end of the quarter, following a major buy of cable and radio set to air this month. Peterson raised $237,000 in the third quarter and had roughly $700,000 to $800,000 on hand at the end of last month. Though he hasn’t run advertising in past cycles, Peterson said he will heed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s advice and run some this time.

Byberg said he doesn’t expect help from the NRCC or other outside groups, though he did get the endorsement of the Minnesota Associated Builders and Contractors.

Byberg has a lot of ground to make up in the state’s largest district, and it will be an uphill climb as he continues to work his day job. His general consultant, Scott Cottington at the Twin Cities-based Cottington Group, said that defeating a powerful committee chairman would take an incumbent who wasn’t prepared, hadn’t raised money or was overcome in a wave.

‘I don’t think Collin’s asleep at the switch,’ he said, ‘and so Byberg’s going to have to count on a fairly significant tide.’

This may be a two-cycle campaign for Byberg. Cottington speculated that Peterson would have no reason to run again in 2012 if Republicans take control of the House and he loses his chairmanship.

Peterson said that’s a decision he’ll make a year or so from now.

‘I do think two years at a time. That’s how I’ve operated. We get a year into the next session, and then I’ll figure out what I think about everything,’ he said.

Correction: Oct. 6, 2010

The article incorrectly stated that National Right to Life endorsed Lee Byberg. Rep. Collin Peterson received the endorsement.

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