Campaigns are no longer a cakewalk for Collin Peterson
Moorhead -- For more than 20 years, congressional races in northwestern Minnesota have been sleepy affairs. Voters in the 7th District have sent Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson back to Congress 11 times, usually by double digit margins. This...
Moorhead - For more than 20 years, congressional races in northwestern Minnesota have been sleepy affairs.
Voters in the 7th District have sent Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson back to Congress 11 times, usually by double digit margins.
This year is different. The district has expanded to the south and polls show a much closer race than usual as Peterson seeks re-election against Republican state Sen. Torrey Westrom. National Republican and Democratic groups have spent nearly $9 million to try to influence the outcome.
Two numbers illustrate why the race is significant.
Nine: That’s how many U.S. House districts are represented by a Democrat where voters picked Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama in 2012. The 7th District one of them.
In a time of growing political polarization, Republican strategists see Peterson’s seat as one of a shrinking number that can pad their majority in the House. That’s why they’re willing to spend so much money on the race.
$3.5 billion: That’s one estimate by Iowa State University as to how much more U.S. consumers spend on sugar every year than they would if the government didn’t protect the domestic sugar industry through price supports and import quotas.
In his nearly 24 years in office, Peterson has been one of the sugar beet industry’s staunchest defenders in Congress. That’s helped him survive in a district where many voters are conservative.
The question for voters in western Minnesota is whether they want a Republican to represent them - or whether they want a plugged-in Congressman with the clout to protect the region’s industries.
At an American Crystal Sugar processing plant just outside Moorhead, where freshly harvested beets are converted into table sugar, CEO David Berg doesn’t shy away from explaining his support for Peterson.
“More important than understanding what goes on here, he understands how to deliver for us in Washington,” Berg said. “He can pull on different levers at different times to make things happen for us.”
Among those levers are Peterson’s moves to make sure the sugar industry keeps its protections and his familiarity with the Obama Administration, which lets him know who to call when the company is having trouble with some part of the federal government.
That expertise is a big deal in the Red River Valley, the population center of the 7th District, where the sugar industry employs more than 20,000 people, according to industry-sponsored research.
“I don’t want to live around here if we don’t have a sugar program,” Berg said. “It would be a pretty grim economic environment.”
Through his perch as chair and now ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Peterson also has helped expand the federally-subsidized crop insurance program to help farmers through the boom and bust cycles of agriculture.
But in a bad year for farmers, Peterson’s long support of agriculture may not be enough.
“Collin’s been good for agriculture, but I think the feeling in the area is that 24 years may be long enough,” said Jay Nord, a corn farmer who has known Peterson since they were teenagers.
Nord, who will be relying on crop insurance this year to cover a bad harvest, won’t say who he’s voting for next week. But federal campaign finance records show he donated $2,000 to Westrom.
“Everybody in the neighborhood will know who I’m voting for,” he said.
While crop insurance might prevent many farmers from going broke, Nord said falling commodity prices could help swing the race against Peterson.
“It’s a bad crop, so farmers are in a bad mood,” Nord said. “So that tends to affect their attitudes. So that’s not fair to the election but that’s the way it is.”
Westrom is counting on voter anger with the Obama administration’s health care and environmental policies to send him to Washington in January.
But when it comes to agriculture policy, there’s little daylight between the two candidates.
Westrom said he would have voted for this year’s farm bill and that he supports the federal sugar program and crop insurance.
“Farmers and agriculture business have a friend in me, same as they need,” he said. “So there’s not an issue about standing up for agriculture, that’s what this district is, that’s what I will do.”
Berg of American Crystal Sugar, who has met with Westrom, thinks the Republican would protect the region’s economic interests.
But Berg said the sugar program has plenty of enemies in Congress, and he’s not ready to see Peterson go.
“I’m not going to give up a stud player for my team, simple as that,” Berg said.
Peterson has a record of bucking his party and siding with Republicans on gun control, social issues such as abortion and environmental regulations - all popular positions in the conservative district.
But Westrom contends that a vote for Peterson is a vote in favor of the Democrats’ positions on those issues - even if Peterson personally doesn’t support them.
“That’s the leadership that Collin Peterson enables,” Westrom said. “If he’s got so much clout, then stop it. It hasn’t been stopped. We need somebody who will stand up to Nancy Pelosi and President Obama, not enable this to happen.”
Peterson defends his relationship with the Democratic leader and argues that it’s ultimately been positive for the 7th District.
“She couldn’t get elected out here, and I couldn’t get elected in her district,” Peterson said of Pelosi. “But I’ve been able to work with her. She trusts me. She thinks that I’m the one that understands agriculture, so that helps me get done what needs to get done and that’s what this job is all about.”
If Republicans take control of the Senate, Peterson said, it would strengthen a small band of conservative and moderate Democrats in the House whose votes would be central to passing spending bills and a new highway bill.
“It’s not going to get done by the far right or the far left,” Peterson said. “It’s going to get done by me being able to bring some Democrats to support something that Obama might be willing to sign. That’s how it works.”
That approach to lawmaking has been valuable, said Paul Rutherford, president of the Red River Valley Sugarbeat Growers Association. He said Peterson has the credibility to get all parties on an issue to cut a deal.
“And he’s come back to us and said, we have to make a little concession here and make a concession there to work with the other side of the aisle and nobody wants to give up something,” Rutherford said. “But you say, ‘that’s fine, we’ll work with you, you know D.C.’ ”
Peterson may have been surprised by the intensity of the race Westrom and his national allies launched against him. After so many easy re-election victories he may have lost his campaigning edge.
Rutherford thinks Peterson has rallied in time to win, but he’s uncomfortable.
“Yeah, you got to be a little nervous,” Rutherford said. “I’m hoping that the voters of the 7th District realize what they have in place out there.”