ST. PAUL — Longtime U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-Minn., says he's holding out until next year to decide whether he'll seek another term representing Minnesota's 7th Congressional District, a move aimed at deterring a bruising campaign a while longer.
But that hasn't stopped possible GOP challengers from entering the fray and setting up a deep bench of possible opponents to take on Peterson, one of the first Blue Dog Democrats, in the 2020 contest.
So far, five Republican candidates have thrown their hats in the ring to take on the 28-year incumbent. And the news that one was in the running flipped the district's rating from likely Democratic-leaning to a toss-up.
Historically, Peterson has drawn a few challengers each cycle, but this year marks one of the largest if not the largest field aiming to take him on.
"People see there's a huge opportunity to retire Collin Peterson," Minnesota GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan said Friday.
No congressional Democrat's district posted higher levels of support for President Donald Trump in 2016 than Peterson's. And while Peterson has held a grip on the seat for nearly three decades, his races have come down to closer margins in recent races.
Trump captured a 30 percentage point lead in the district over Hillary Clinton in 2016. And Peterson fended off a challenge from Republican Dave Hughes that year by about a 5-point margin. That spread shrunk in a re-match contest in 2018, with Peterson edging out Hughes by four points.
With Trump set to be on the ballot again in 2020, Hughes, along with Republicans Noel Collis, Michelle Fischbach, Joel Novak and Jayesun Sherman have each filed to take on Peterson in the down-ballot contest.
“I think it's important to take a persistent approach," Hughes said, pointing to his four years campaigning for the seat. "The third time is going to be the charm."
Peterson hasn't said whether he'll seek re-election but has kept up campaign activities in the district. And he said he'd announce early next year whether he'll run again. His campaign didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.
“People know him, they trust him, they know he stands up for them,” Minnesota DFL Chair Ken Martin said of the 28-year incumbent. “I think Collin could offer up some prescriptions for us about how we win back some of these rural parts of the country because he does it and part of it just listening”
Each of the Republicans aiming to unseat Peterson has allied him or herself with the president early and sought to juxtapose his or her positions with moderate Peterson's.
The candidates had different reasons for attempting to flip the district red for the first time in almost three decades. And they each said they expected that the president's popularity in the district, and their support for his policies, would help them come out ahead.
In the run-up to the April nominating convention, the five will have to fight for the GOP endorsement before they can take on Peterson.
With Trump's popularity and Peterson's more recent, slim victories in mind, each of the five decided to enter the contest to unseat the DFLer.
Fischbach, a former lieutenant governor and state senator, entered the race in September, noting she wanted to flip the seat to provide another ally to Trump and to more closely mirror the values of the district on issues like immigration and trade.
"The 7th District needs someone who really represents their values and will go to Washington and fight," Fischbach told Forum News Service on Friday.
Her entry into the race caused national race watchers at The Cook Political Report and Sabato's Crystal Ball to shift predictions about the district from a "leans Democratic" designation to a "toss-up." And it generated endorsements from U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Minnesota GOP legislative leaders and more than a dozen other Republican lawmakers.
Equipped with a campaign infrastructure and $100,000 in campaign contributions within her first month in the race, Fischbach came out strong. And the quick rise earned her a target on her back from the other GOP candidates running against her.
“She’s a definite threat," Novak said. "She’s the person to beat right now."
That's why Novak said he's put in 10,000 miles so far crisscrossing the district to spend more time with people around the region. The Alexandria attorney with an extensive military background said he's been putting in time on the road attending lunches, fairs and meetings in an effort to get to know not just Republican delegates, but voters of all political affiliations around the district.
"I’ve been out shaking hands more than any of the other candidates," Novak said. "I’m running like a wild man all over western Minnesota meeting people."
Jayesun Sherman, a Windom pastor, has also announced his bid for the 7th District seat, noting on his campaign website that he aims to counter a "lack of freshness" in the district's representation. Sherman didn't respond to an interview request on Friday.
Back for another shot
Meanwhile, other Republicans who've tried and failed to knock Peterson out of the 7th District seat have re-emerged ahead of the 2020 contest with new enthusiasm.
Hughes will vie for the Republican endorsement in April after coming within four and five points of Peterson in 2016 and 2018, respectively. The Retired Air Force Major from Karlstad said he was confident the third time would be the charm in his effort to take out Peterson.
After receiving Trump's endorsement in 2018 and building up a campaign infrastructure and maintaining his relationships with the district's Republican delegates, Hughes said he's the one to watch in the GOP contest.
“I am the frontrunner,” Hughes said. "Michele jumping in and the (Republican) Party jumping in behind her is just a slap in the face to the delegates and the endorsing process."
The Minnesota GOP has said it won't endorse until the district convention, but individual elected officials and party members have already done so.
Collis, an Albany gastroenterologist, unsuccessfully challenged Peterson in 1992 and said he'd recently trimmed his hours at the clinic because he felt "our country and our world are worth saving." Concerned about Americans' constitutional right to own firearms, the security of the country's borders and current laws that he felt are too lenient on abortion access, Collis said he felt a need to run.
With a full staff and plan to campaign full-time around the district, Collis said he could bring an edge that Republicans hadn't been able to over the last three decades.
“The Republicans want a candidate who is full-time because Collin Peterson, it will take a full-time effort to beat him," Collis said.