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Brett Neely, Published January 20 2014

Minn.'s Collin Peterson mulls political future

WASHINGTON – As Republicans look at the Minnesota election map this year, many believe their best chance of picking up a congressional seat is the 7th District, which covers the western half of the state and runs from the Canadian border almost all the way to Iowa.

Voters in the conservative region have reliably selected Republican presidential candidates for years. But since 1991, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a gun-owning, guitar-playing conservative Democrat, has represented the district in the U.S. House. Now the state’s longest serving member of Congress, Peterson hasn’t yet announced whether he will run for re-election this year.

“I’m waiting until we get the farm bill done. I’ve got a lot of other things on my mind,” Peterson said in response to a question about his political future.

Peterson was the architect of the 2008 farm bill and has been closely involved in drafting the current bill, which could be finished by February, though it has been long delayed by internal Republican politics.

In his 23 years in the House, Peterson has fashioned a reputation as a straight-talking dealmaker and vote counter who has used his perch as the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee to continue generous federal support for his district’s corn and sugar beet growers.

Vulnerability

Republicans are hoping that stronger candidates and hopes of a backlash against the Affordable Care Act will be enough to unseat Peterson should he run again.

National Republicans helped recruit state Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, to take on Peterson in the fall and have been talking up his prospects to reporters. Westrom didn’t respond to a request for an interview. Montevideo businessman Scott van Binsbergen also is weighing a run against Peterson.

Craig Bishop, chairman of the 7th District Republicans, argued that Peterson could be vulnerable in the fall.

“One thing about his record is he waffled on Obamacare,” Bishop said. “We all know how important that issue is going to be coming up in November 2014.”

Peterson voted against the Affordable Care in 2010. But he also opposed later Republican attempts to dismantle the law.

Peterson’s voting record has made it hard for Republicans to easily paint him as an out-of-touch liberal in a conservative district. He frequently breaks with the Democrats on issues such as abortion, gun control and the environment.

While he’s not a reliable vote for Democrats or Republicans, Peterson has developed strong relationships with members on both sides of the aisle.

Blue Dog Coalition

Despite winning re-election comfortably for the past 20 years, Peterson finds himself confronted with an unfavorable trend in American politics. Before the 1990s, it was common for voters to vote for one party’s candidate at the presidential level and another party’s candidate for congressional seats.

That’s become increasingly rare. Peterson is now one of just nine Democrats in the House to represent a district carried by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. Romney won nearly 54 percent of the vote compared to 44 percent carried by President Barack Obama.

The growing polarization of the electorate has affected Peterson’s closest political allies in the House, the group of conservative Democrats known as the Blue Dog Coalition that Peterson is a founding member of. They took that name after one of them said they were tired of being choked blue by liberals.

As recently as 2010, there were 54 Blue Dogs in the House. These days, there are fewer than 20, and several have announced plans to retire.

Peterson’s many years atop the House Agriculture Committee have given him a deep well of financial supporters to draw upon in case of a tough election.

Republican operatives have been spreading rumors that Peterson may follow some of his fellow Blue Dogs into retirement. While Peterson was noncommittal when asked recently, he was more irritated by attempts to push him toward the door last June, after Republicans put an anti-Peterson sign on a truck and drove it through his hometown of Detroit Lakes.

In another sign Peterson is angling for a 13th term, a number of high-ranking Democrats held a fundraiser for Peterson’s campaign in November.

If he runs again, Peterson’s constituents will have to decide this November whether they want a deal-maker who’s determined to avoid conventional political labels or a newer, more conservative voice in Congress.