ST. PAUL — U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson is proud of his rogue record as a bipartisan lawmaker, even though it comes with a fair amount of criticism.

Republicans and Democrats alike lash back at the 76-year-old congressman when he doesn't support their proposals. And for nearly three decades, Peterson has taken the blowback as a sign that he's on the right track.

“Some people think that I’m too independent or too bipartisan," he said Friday, Oct. 23, during an MPR debate. “I’ve done that my whole career and I’m not going to change even though I get an equal amount of flak from Democrats as I do from Republicans. I figure if I’m doing that I’m probably doing a good job."

For nearly 30 years the congressman has flown his Beechcraft single-engine plane around the vast swath of western Minnesota, stopping to visit farms and businesses. The self-described conservative Democrat takes the input to Washington, where he votes the way he thinks people in his district would want him to, regardless of whether the proposals came from Democrats or Republicans.

Collin Peterson is seen in this 1990 photo. (Forum News Service file photo)
Collin Peterson is seen in this 1990 photo. (Forum News Service file photo)

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His track record and personal brand of politics have been enough to keep him in office for decades, and they'll again be up for voters to assess on the ballot. But they might not be enough to fend off a challenge Nov. 3 from a stronger GOP opponent than he's faced in years.

After coming close to retiring the congressman in recent years, top U.S. House Republicans recruited Michelle Fischbach, a 54-year-old former lieutenant governor and Minnesota Senate president, to take a run at Peterson. Fischbach said she can better align with the deep-red district in delivering votes for President Donald Trump's priorities and blocking Democratic proposals.

“From the start, this is probably (Peterson's) hardest race since he first ran for the seat or his second election,” University of Minnesota-Morris Assistant Political Science Professor Tim Lindberg said. “This is definitely his hardest test.”

A push to snap DFL hold in Trump-backing district

Peterson has represented the district for nearly three decades and no other Democratic member of Congress represents a district that threw more support behind Trump in 2016. That has made him a top target for GOP-aligned groups working to flip the seat to Republican control this year.

Groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund and National Republican Congressional Committee have piped millions of dollars of spending into the state to help cement the case for replacing Peterson. Meanwhile, Democratic groups like the House Majority PAC and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have launched several ads opposing Fischbach.

Peterson also saw a strong backing from agriculture groups supportive of his reelection and retention of the lead position on the House Agriculture Committee. And local sugar beet growers helped fund Committee for Stronger Rural Communities, a PAC that has raised more than $1 million to help reelect Peterson.

In an opinion piece in the West Central Tribune last month, the leaders of nine commodity organizations said it was important that the district maintain its representation on key farming issues.

"Collin Peterson is a powerful voice for Minnesota agriculture and losing his leadership in Washington would be a blow to farm families and our rural economy," Les Anderson, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, wrote on behalf of the various groups. "Make no mistake, the big controversies in national farm policy, more often than not, are regional — Minnesota and other upper Midwest states must retain an experienced and strong advocate for our interests."

Various farming groups and Peterson himself have made a point of emphasizing his role at the helm of the committee and the value it brings to Minnesota.

“I can’t do everything just to benefit Minnesota or the 7th District but you can be sure that I’m going to make sure that we’re taken care of,” Peterson said of his work leading the committee. “It’s not that (Fischbach) would be against agriculture, it’s just that she would not bring any kind of influence to the table, which for us is crucial.”

Former Minnesota Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach, running for Seventh District member of the U.S. House of Representatives, served as president of the Minnesota State Senate, where she represented farmers and others in Benton and Stearns counties. Photo provided by Fischbach campaign
Former Minnesota Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach, running for Seventh District member of the U.S. House of Representatives, served as president of the Minnesota State Senate, where she represented farmers and others in Benton and Stearns counties. Photo provided by Fischbach campaign

Fischbach said she's met with farmers and producers around the district and would continue listening and working as an advocate for them in discussions over the next Farm Bill and other agriculture-related policies.

“We’re talking to farmers about what works for them, what doesn’t work for them, what they would like to see," Fischbach said. "And we’d like to talk about the next 30 years and making sure that we’re moving things forward and we’re looking to the future and we’re looking at value-added products.”

Small distinctions, Trump's endorsement separate candidates

Fischbach said her opponent has grown out of touch with the district and its priorities after so many years in Washington. Peterson was first elected to the seat in 1990 and after a few close races in the early 1990s, he easily won reelection bids until 2014.

That year, Torrey Westrom came within 8.5 percentage points of Peterson. And in 2016, Trump won the 7th District by nearly 31 percentage points while Peterson won reelection by 5 points over Dave Hughes. Hughes again ran against Peterson in 2018 and brought the margin down to 4 points.

Cue Fischbach, running this year with better name recognition, stronger fundraising and an endorsement from Trump, who will be at the top of the ticket.

On several campaign stops through the state the president has stood onstage with Fischbach or mentioned her by name. Peterson, meanwhile, has backed former Vice President Joe Biden. And Fischbach said voters in the deep-red district wouldn't care to reelect a DFL candidate that supported Biden or that worked with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.

“I will work hard and I have a fresh outlook on what is going on in the district and what’s important to the folks in the district," Fischbach said. "And I will say that No. 1, I will not support Nancy Pelosi. Nancy Pelosi is pushing an agenda that the people of the 7th District don’t support and I think that they deserve a strong conservative voice that will actually fight for them in Congress."

Peterson is among Democrats who most frequently breaks with the party line in his votes but Republicans have aimed to tie him to some of the most liberal members of his caucus. Fishbach has highlighted Peterson's support for the Justice for George Floyd in Policing Act and said he would support efforts to defund law enforcement groups.

“They’re passing bills that are going nowhere, they’re spending time on impeachment, they’re spending time on worrying about the 25th Amendment, they’re not doing the business to help the people of the United States," Fischbach said. "They are busy obsessing about President Trump and passing bills that are going nowhere.”

It's a line that's energized Republicans and Trump supporters in the district and one on which groups backing Fischbach's election have honed in. Campaign ads have depicted Peterson alongside images of Pelosi and Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minneapolis Democrat, and highlighted the congressman's record voting with fellow Democrats.

Daryl Thurn, a Green Isle, Minn., engineer and self-described conservative, said he supports Fischbach because of her strong stance on opposing abortion, desire to reduce regulations and grow the economy and her willingness to work with the president to advance his agenda.

Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach spoke briefly during the dedication ceremony Friday afternoon of the Rooster Ridge Wildlife Management Area southwest of Beaver Creek. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)
Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach spoke briefly during the dedication ceremony Friday afternoon of the Rooster Ridge Wildlife Management Area southwest of Beaver Creek. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)

"We need people in Washington that will support what President Trump wants to do. Collin Peterson fought President Trump all the way. The only thing Collin Peterson didn't do was vote for impeachment," Thurn said. "We need someone down there who will support him and Michelle Fischbach will support him."

Peterson said he was confident that voters who knew him wouldn't fall for characterizations that he doesn't support law enforcement officers and said efforts to dismantle or defund police departments were a “lunatic idea that doesn’t make any sense."

“For anybody that’s paying any attention, to convince people that I’m a liberal I think is a stretch,” he said, breaking into laughter. “But you know, we’ll find out.”

While they have different political affiliations, Fischbach and Peterson align on many issues central to voters in western Minnesota. They both support the right to bear arms, have sought to limit abortion access and think COVID-19 mitigation strategies should be better tailored to regions of the state.

Their slight variations come around health care and tax policy. Fischbach has said she wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act while Peterson has said it should remain in place unless a viable alternative is presented. And Fischbach said she would push to make permanent changes under the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act while Peterson said the plan came without a plan to fund it and worried about its impact to the federal deficit.

Even Peterson acknowledged that the moderate Democrat and Republican candidate didn't offer a profound contrast for voters on their policy platforms.

“I’m not sure there’ll be a lot of difference," he said in an interview with Forum News Service, "other than maybe style and I’m a senior member of the House, I’ve got credibility on both sides of the aisle. I can make things happen and that’s why you send people to Congress, to be able to do that.”

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com