In any election, the primary sign that polling shows the race is close is when the negative ads start to flow. Such is the case in Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District, which includes western Stearns and all of Todd counties.
House Agriculture Committee chair, DFL Rep. Collin Peterson, seeking a 16th two-year term, was untouchable for most elections through 2012, garnering up to 72% of the vote in landslide victories. Things changed in 2014. State Sen. Torrey Westrom lost only 54% to 46%. Westrom raised over $1 million, more than the GOP raised in the two previous campaigns combined.
Peterson got the message, and has raised more than $1.2 million in every campaign since.
Nevertheless, in 2016 and 2018, he had even closer races against Dave Hughes, an under-funded political newcomer. Hughes raised less than $20,000 in 2016, but lost only 52% to 47%, helped by Donald Trump, who won the district 61% to 31%.
In 2018, the changing politics in the 7th became more evident. Hughes lost again, 52% to 48%, despite Peterson’s 5-to-1 financial advantage. More striking was that the state’s most popular politician at the time, DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar, won the district by only 335 votes.
This year, Republicans think they have the ideal candidate in former Republican state senator and Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach of Paynesville. First elected to the state Senate in 1996, Fischbach became president of the Senate in 2017. Then, U.S. Sen. Al Franken became ensnared in the #MeToo movement and resigned. Governor Mark Dayton appointed Lt. Gov. Tina Smith as his replacement.
This drew Fischbach into a constitutional controversy. Under the state constitution, if a vacancy occurs in the lieutenant governorship, the president of the Senate replaces her. Democrats said Fischbach could not hold two elective positions simultaneously. However, Fischbach refused to take the oath of office as lieutenant governor until the end of the 2018 legislative session so the GOP could retain its slim Senate majority. The brouhaha gave her priceless name recognition statewide.
Regardless, nothing comes easily for 7th District Republicans. While the national GOP was promoting Fischbach, she had serious competition for the party’s nomination. Hughes ran again and Dr. Noel Collis self-funded a primary run. Fischbach won with 58% of the vote, but the primary drained precious resources that she needs now.
The July 22 financial disclosures report Fischbach had raised more than $1 million, enough to be competitive, but Peterson had raised $273,088 more than her, and had almost four times as much cash on hand.
As the race has evolved, Big Ag interests have come out in favor of Peterson. Fischbach has been attacked for supporting buffer zones around lakes and streams. That issue upset many farmers, not because they are opposed to clean drinking water, but because Dayton presented the issue before getting any input from ag interests. The issue added to the perception that the DFL has become metro-centric.
Meanwhile, Peterson continues to run as he always has, distancing himself from his party’s majority on social issues like abortion and gun control. He also opposed impeaching Trump.
Fischbach is contrasting those votes to the one vote that most counts, that being for Speaker of the House. The Democrats control the House by 38 votes, so they can afford to let a few Democrats like Peterson stray on individual issues. Fischbach, whose husband, Scott, is executive director of the anti-abortion Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, doesn’t need to take a back seat to Peterson on any wedge issues.
The question is whether Peterson’s moderate voting record still works when his party is increasingly dominated by liberals like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ilhan Omar and Sen. Bernie Sanders. While most Democratic candidates are distancing themselves from the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, Democratic primary voters nationally are frequently opting for more liberal candidates.
A few issues that have not gotten as much play in the district, may come to light in the final weeks.
Some Democrats think if Joe Biden wins the presidency and the Democrats gain the Senate majority, they should give Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia statehood. That could give them four more Democratic senators, solidifying their majority for years to come.
If that happens, however, Minnesotans can kiss one of its congressional districts goodbye because the new states’ House members would come at other states’ expense. Peterson, age 76, could retire, but if the DFL gains full control of the Legislature, the likely outcome of redistricting would put two of the state’s GOP congressional representatives in the same district.
Democrats are also livid that the Republicans are pushing through another Trump nominee to the Supreme Court. Some want to pack the court, adding justices. This is a bad idea, unless one is a career politician. Too many in Congress want the unelected court to make the tough decisions so they can keep their cushy careers simply by blaming judges or the president for the nation’s problems. The consequence could be, when the GOP regains control, that they pack the court even more. Over time, the court could become so large that somebody will ask, “What do we need Congress for?”
Adding two new states may help Democrats over the longer term than court packing.
Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.