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Peterson’s conservatism isn’t enough to keep Minnesota seat for Democrats

Conservative Democrat’s majority grew narrower in recent elections

Peterson, shown here leaving a Democrats’ caucus meeting in 2019, lost a seat he has represented since 1991.
Peterson, shown here leaving a Democrats’ caucus meeting in 2019, lost a seat he has represented since 1991. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Agriculture Chairman Collin C. Peterson, a Blue Dog Democrat from Minnesota with a reputation as a pragmatic conservative in an increasingly Republican district, has lost his bid for a 16th term.

Peterson’s defeat means a scramble to take the gavel on the Agriculture Committee and the departure of a rural lawmaker who had the ear of Speaker Nancy Pelosi on farm issues despite broader political differences. Peterson’s loss also means Republicans have a seat that Democrats may be hard-pressed to reclaim.

Voters instead chose former Minnesota Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach, a GOP challenger endorsed by President Donald Trump who has deep ties to the anti-abortion movement. The AP called the race at 1:36 am EST.

Earl Pomeroy, a former North Dakota congressman in the Blue Dog Coalition, said Peterson stood out because he had managed for nearly 30 years to hold a seat despite being targeted by Republicans.

“I was kind of a light Blue Dog. He’s a Blue Dog, a dark Blue Dog, meaning more conservative,” said Pomeroy, who lost his House seat in 2010 after 18 years in Congress. “He’s always been right-to-life, and he’s always been very strong on gun rights. He fit himself well with the conservative social bent of the district.”

Peterson was one of two Democrats to vote against impeachment charges for Trump in 2019, seeing no likelihood of conviction in the Republican-controlled Senate.

More recently, he and Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Va., filed legislation for a constitutional amendment that would keep the number of Supreme Court justices at nine. Other Democrats had called for expanding the court to counter the addition of conservative Amy Coney Barrett.

Peterson’s conservative outlook may have irritated liberal members of his party, Pomeroy said.

“Some people think if you don’t run a campaign that can win in Brooklyn, you shouldn’t be in the caucus,” Pomeroy said. “They are wrong. The country is diverse. The party has to have a breadth of views, opinions and beliefs within the party to remain the majority party.”

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In Minnesota, Peterson’s district connections weren’t enough to overcome strong support for Trump and differing priorities in an area spread over 38 counties and including rural communities and several cities. More than 60 percent of district residents are classified as rural.

First elected to the House in 1990, Peterson had survived previous Republican efforts to unseat him, but his winning margin shrank to 52.5 percent in 2016 as Trump carried the district. He won again in the 2018 midterm elections with 52.1 percent of the vote.

Kelly Erickson, a wheat, soybean, canola and sugar beet farmer in Peterson’s district, credited Peterson for moving several multiyear farm policy bills through Congress while helping to win higher Medicare reimbursements to critical access hospitals in rural areas.

Peterson sought in the farm bills to balance regional differences in agriculture and pushed policies to move farmers into federally subsidized crop insurance and away from reliance on ad hoc disaster payments to cover lost revenue or crop yields. His loss comes after the administration used a different type of ad hoc payment to help farmers badly hurt by Trump’s trade policies and by a fumbled handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Erickson serves on a political action committee that tried to aid Peterson with more than $600,000 in advertising during the campaign.

“We’ve become more urban as time has moved on,” Erickson said. “Our voice out here in rural America is getting smaller and smaller. We really depend on members of Congress like Chairman Peterson to push agendas that rural America needs.”

Erickson said he was particularly concerned that Fischbach has no background in agriculture.

“Agriculture is my life. Farm bills are important,” Erickson said.

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