MOORHEAD - With the 2014 election on the horizon, a Republican candidate has emerged to contest Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson for his seat in Congress.

State Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, will announce in Moorhead today his bid to unseat Peterson in Minnesota’s Seventh District - making him the first candidate to launch a campaign aimed at taking on the 12-term Democrat from Detroit Lakes, who hasn’t been in a close election in nearly 20 years.

In an interview before his announcement, Westrom cast Peterson as part of what he called dysfunction in Washington, D.C., while portraying himself as a new face with political acumen honed in more than a decade in the state Legislature.

“They can’t even get a farm bill through,” Westrom said. “You can’t change the dysfunction in Washington if you don’t change the players at the table.”

A lawyer and small-business owner, Westrom was first elected to the Minnesota House in 1996 to represent the Elbow Lake area, where he lives with his wife and three children.

He jumped to the state Senate last year, which stretches across eight of the 7th District’s 38 counties.

Combined with his background in agriculture – he grew up on a farm and “woke up milking cows before the school bus came” – Westrom said he has a pulse for the district that will help him take on Peterson.

Westrom mulled the decision for months before becoming the first Republican to officially announce a bid. He acknowledged beating the longtime Democrat won’t be easy.

Known as a moderate Democrat and a strong voice on agriculture, Peterson has sailed to smooth victories in nearly every election since he was first voted into office in 1990. After close re-election races in 1992 and 1994, Peterson has crushed Republican challengers by 20- to 40-point margins.

Most recently, he defeated Lee Byberg by 17- and 25-point margins in 2010 and 2012, respectively. That’s despite running in one of the most Republican-leaning districts in Minnesota - second only to Rep. Michele Bachmann’s Sixth District, according to the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index.

“The 7th District Republican Party members will have to consider their options as I’m hearing there are others who are looking at getting in the race,” Peterson said in an emailed statement. “Frankly, I’m just concentrating on getting the farm bill done.”

Montevideo businessman Scott Van Binsbergen, who has been considering stepping in for more than a year, said he plans to decide around the new year. He said Westrom’s announcement won’t factor into his choice.

A focus on smaller government

Westrom said he will build his platform around “the need for a smaller, less-intrusive government.” He highlighted cancellations of health insurance policies prompted by the Affordable Care Act - commonly called Obamacare - as an example, and predicted the health care law will be a major issue again in 2014.

He also said he would support a constitutional amendment requiring Congress to pass a balanced budget.

Westrom stressed his broad experience in the state Legislature in the last decade as an asset – including issues such as agriculture, energy, finance and civil law.

But there’s one particular issue he’s always tried to champion: helping those with disabilities. Westrom has been blind since 1987, when a car accident took his sight at age 14.

“I will be a loud voice for those people,” he said, working on ways to help those with disabilities find work and remain independent.

Westrom said he plans to spend the next few months raising money and touring the district, which covers most of western Minnesota.

A helping hand

Westrom’s campaign is getting a jumpstart from national Republicans, who targeted Peterson early this year.

The National Republican Congressional Committee put $22,000 worth of ads attacking the Minnesota Democrat on the air in Fargo-Moorhead and in the Twin Cities this summer. Peterson was one of seven Democrats the NRCC targeted for the 2014 election.

And though the NRCC is in Moorhead helping Westrom launch his campaign, spokeswoman Alleigh Marré said her organization won’t back his campaign financially – at least not until Republicans in the 7th District choose their candidate in a primary.

“Our focus is on offense against Peterson,” she said.

An official from the 7th District Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party did not respond to a request for comment.

Minnesota Senate Minority Leader David Hann was glad to hear Westrom decided to challenge Peterson. Hann said he had urged him to consider challenging Peterson, and he thinks Westrom can win.

Hann, the top Republican in the Senate, has been colleagues with Westrom in the Senate for just a year, but he said Westrom’s work ethic, political skill and ability to connect with constituents are obvious.

“He’s just a guy that has the right blend of experience and is certainly well-connected to the people out in western Minnesota,” Hann said. “When (voters) meet him and talk to him, they’ll see that right away.”