Peterson’s Greatest Challenge Yet, but GOP Still Looks to 2016

(Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images File Photo)
(Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images File Photo)
Posted August 19, 2014 at 12:00pm

Minnesota Democrats think Rep. Collin C. Peterson is nearly unbeatable in the 7th District. For the first time in more than a decade, that theory is about to be put to the test.  

Peterson is one of just a handful of House Democrats representing a decidedly Republican district, but he has won re-election even in GOP wave years. In 2012, presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried the conservative, rural district by 10 points as the Democratic lawmaker won his race by a 25-point margin.  

This year, Peterson faces his most formidable challenger in several cycles. Though the Democrat remains the front-runner, Republican state Sen. Torrey Westrom brings a compelling life story as the first blind member of the legislature, and more political experience than any of Peterson’s recent opponents.  

“We’re paying attention,” Peterson told CQ Roll Call in a recent interview. “We’ve never been targeted before, so we’re not exactly sure what’s going to happen.”  

Minnesota Republicans and Democrats agree on one point, at least: Westrom has a good shot at ending up in Congress.  

It’s just not clear when.  

In fact, some Democrats and impartial observers are already suggesting that Westrom’s real shot at representing the district in Washington is if Peterson retires in 2016.  

Though in both the 2010 and 2012 contests Republicans initially trumpeted Peterson’s rival Lee Byberg, outside groups never invested significant money in independent expenditures attacking the Democrat. Byberg never came within 15 points of winning.  

This cycle, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the American Future Fund have already spent more than $160,000 against Peterson. The NRCC has also reserved $3.2 million in spending that can be split between the 7th District and the 8th District, where Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan faces a competitive race.  

Westrom, who has more experience than Byberg, has been designated as a Young Gun by the NRCC, the committee’s top designation for challengers.  

“This is the strongest run at Collin Peterson that’s ever been made,” said Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey. In the most recent internal Westrom campaign poll, Peterson led Westrom by 3 points. The results, obtained first by CQ Roll Call, came from a survey of 400 likely voters conducted May 27-29.  

Republicans think the district, which also voted for presidential candidates John McCain and George W. Bush, simply needs to be offered a plausible alternative to break from Peterson.  

In the same Westrom campaign poll, more than 50 percent of respondents said they would prefer to vote for a Republican to represent them in Congress.  

But sources say Democratic polling gives Peterson a somewhat larger lead, and even Democratic strategists and independent observers who privately express concern about Nolan’s campaign in the 8th District say they are confident Peterson’s unique connection to the district will help him prevail. And with more than twice as much in cash on hand, Peterson maintains a significant financial advantage over Westrom.

“I think the big opportunity with Republicans is when Collin Peterson choses to step down” said University of Minnesota Professor Larry Jacobs. “Until then, this is kind of a personal fiefdom.” For now, Jacobs says positioning in the district is “entirely about who replaces Collin Peterson [after he retires].”

Peterson has maintained a conservative profile, and as the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, plays an important role in shaping policies that matter back home. Democrats admit that without Peterson playing that role, the rural, conservative seat will be hard to keep.

“He is one of those politicians that has clearly put his oath to the people he was elected by ahead of the oath to his political party,” said Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chairman Ken Martin. “He’s spent all of his political life fighting for the issues that people in the 7th District care about.”

CQ Roll Call asked Peterson if he faces difficulties with voters as the national mood trends against his party. “People understand that I was able to get Nancy Pelosi to support the farm bill even though she has no farmers in her district,” he said.  

Peterson, 70, regularly tops retirement watch lists. Two successive quarters of anemic fundraising and public comments about frustrations with Congress fueled rumors that he would step down this cycle. Westrom declared his candidacy before knowing if Peterson would be trying to stick around, though he said in an interview he always assumed he would be facing the incumbent.  

Several strategists speculated Peterson’s retirement would spur Minnesota Republicans to jump into the race for what could become a reliably Republican seat. Running a strong 2014 campaign would make Westrom the immediate front-runner.

The congressman declined to discuss when he plans on retiring, though as prominent Minnesota Democratic strategist Jeff Blodgett puts it, “Collin’s made no secret that he’s thinking of retiring sometime soon.”

One senior Democratic strategist summed it up: “He’ll have that seat until he doesn’t run and then Democrats will lose it.”
The race is rated Leans Democratic by the Rothenberg Report/Roll Call.