Minnesota’s powerful House Ag Committee chairman gears up for a fall battle

By: - August 10, 2020 5:32 am

Five Republicans are hoping to unseat Democrat U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson.

WASHINGTON — Minnesota’s most vulnerable member of Congress — the DFL’s Rep. Collin Peterson — is heading into a battle for reelection this fall with a big money lead over his would-be GOP challengers.

The Agriculture Committee chairman — one of the most senior members of the House, but also a Democrat in a district President Donald Trump won by more than 30 points — has at least $1 million more in the bank than any of the Republicans vying for the right to take him on in November, according to the latest reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

He posted about $1.35 million in cash as of July 22, according to a “pre-primary” report filed last week — far ahead of the leading challengers in the 7th Congressional District’s Aug. 11 GOP primary.

Former Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach — endorsed by the local GOP and seen by state observers as the frontrunner in the Republican primary — had $343,000 on hand as of July 22, according to her pre-primary FEC report.

Noel Collis, a physician, had about $250,000 as of that date, according to his latest report. And Dave Hughes, a pilot who failed to oust Peterson in 2016 and 2018, had less than $3,000 in the bank.

But Peterson’s financial edge may not last long.

The district — rated by insiders as one of the most competitive in the country — is expected to draw an influx of cash and outside interest after the primary victors emerge.

The National Republican Congressional Committee — chaired by Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, who represents the 6th Congressional District — is targeting the seat again this year in hopes of finally turning it red.

Michelle Fischbach has lined up a bevy of big name endorsements, including from President Donald Trump.

Emmer has endorsed Fischbach, as have Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, GOP House leaders and conservative luminaries like Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Minnesota’s ex-Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Meanwhile, GOP donors are eyeing a shrinking number of targeted seats, according to Larry Jacobs, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota.

Steven Schier, professor emeritus of political science at Carleton College, noted that Fischbach has raised more than $941,000 in the cycle so far from individuals, political action committees and other sources of revenue. That’s in spite of the pandemic, which has put a damper on in-person fundraising.

That’s also just $321,000 less than Peterson, despite his 15 terms in Congress and his perch atop the agriculture panel.

She’s “obviously financially competitive,” Schier said.

Fischbach “fits the criteria for a quality candidate,” Jacobs said, noting that she served as president of the state Senate, is well known in Republican circles and is seen as a dynamic and compelling political force. “She’s a name,” he said.

Fischbach has also benefited from divided support for Collis and Hughes. Each raised much less, though Collis loaned his own campaign $695,000.

And if she prevails in the primary, she could benefit from Trump’s campaign presence in the state, Schier said. Several dozen of the president’s campaign aides are working to turn out the vote in Minnesota this fall, he said.

With Trump’s emphasis on Minnesota, Peterson “is going to have his work cut out for him,” Schier said. He has two DFL challengers in the primary, Stephen Emery and Alycia Gruenhagen, but is expected to win.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report report rates Peterson’s general election contest a tossup — and the most competitive House race in the state. On a list dominated by more junior members, Peterson is the rare veteran lawmaker and the only chair of a major congressional committee.

“He’s in a very unusual situation,” Schier said. “He’s a very important member of the House, yet he’s in electoral difficulty.”

Senior lawmakers with institutional power typically hail from safe districts, Jacobs explained. Peterson “defies that pattern.”

The district — a sprawling stretch of land in the rural western half of the state — has become increasingly conservative in recent years. Trump’s 2016 margin was the largest of any district now held by a Democrat. Republican presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney won the district in 2008 and 2012.

Earlier in his career, Peterson — a conservative Democrat — won reelection by double-digit margins, Jacobs said, but his hold on power has slipped in recent years. He won with 60 percent of the vote in 2012, but his margin of victory shrank to 52 percent by 2018.

A Peterson spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Peterson in a recent virtual discussion with other candidates mentioned his work on the farm bill, the new trade agreement and the recent COVID-19 relief bill passed by the House, and said he’s effective at working in Congress on a bipartisan basis, according to the Park Rapids Enterprise.

A Peterson loss would continue the “rural-urban” political realignment in the state, Schier said.

It would also mean a significant loss of influence in the nation’s capital, Jacobs said. As a medium-sized state, Minnesota relies heavily on the delegation to advocate for it in Congress, and Peterson has been a “very important voice” on agricultural policy in particular, he said. It would be a “blow, no doubt.”

Threat to Omar

Only three other House races in the state are regarded as potentially competitive this fall, according to the Cook report. Those are seats held by DFL Rep. Angie Craig in the 2nd District and Republican Reps. Jim Hagedorn in the 1st District and Pete Stauber in the 8th District.

In the meantime, a strong DFL primary challenge to Rep. Ilhan Omar is drawing national attention. Antone Melton-Meaux, a lawyer and mediator, has raked in about $4 million so far this cycle, according to his latest report — slightly less than Omar’s $4.2 million.

A former state lawmaker who has drawn national attention for her progressive views, Omar won her first term in 2018 with a whopping 78 percent of the vote. But political observers are wondering whether she will be the only member of the so-called “squad” — a group of four progressive congresswomen who have been targeted by Trump — to lose her seat this primary season.

Two other squad members, Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, have beaten back primary challenges this year, while Massachusetts Democrat Ayanna Pressley is unopposed in her Sept. 1 primary.

Omar, meanwhile, is “fighting for her life,” Jacobs said.

Freshman DFL Sen. Tina Smith, who succeeded ex-Sen. Al Franken, is considered a safe bet for reelection, according to the Cook report.

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Allison Stevens
Allison Stevens

Allison Stevens is a Washington correspondent for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes Minnesota Reformer.