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7th District race tightens, but Peterson has proven to be a survivor in the past

“In today's politics, Collin Peterson is a freak of nature,” said Steve Smith, a political science professor at Washington University.
REUTERS/Mike Theiler
“In today's politics, Collin Peterson [above] is a freak of nature,” said Steve Smith, a political science professor at Washington University.

WASHINGTON — Almost every single indicator in Minnesota’s 7th District points to a razor-tight race, or perhaps a GOP upset victory.

The challenger’s fundraising numbers have closed to within $22,000 of the incumbent over the last quarter. The district voted for John McCain over Barack Obama, and this is shaping up to be a very Republican year. The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, even went so far as to say he was “confident” that Lee Byberg would oust Collin Peterson this year.

Almost every indicator, we said. That last indicator is Peterson himself, and his history of easily brushing off every challenger who crosses his path.

While the district gave 50 percent of its vote to John McCain in 2008, it gave 72 percent to Peterson. It was the fourth consecutive year where his vote percentage increased from the year before, going back to the last time the district’s boundaries were tweaked between 2000 and 2002. In fact, he hasn’t been held to under 65 percent of the vote since 1994, the last big GOP “wave” election.

“In today's politics, Collin Peterson is a freak of nature,” said Steve Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis who commutes from the Twin Cities. “Republicans have long asked, ‘Why can't we find someone to beat this guy?’"

The man taking up that challenge this year is Lee Byberg, an economist by trade running in a year that’s supposed to be all about the economy. His parents were Christian missionaries, and Byberg still retains a thick Norwegian accent from his junior and senior high school days spent in Norway.

“I joke that I went to Norway to acquire a Minnesota accent,” he said, a nod to the district’s plurality Norwegian heritage.

Byberg had his best fundraising quarter to date in the third quarter, raising $150,000 to bring his campaign total to $308,000. He’ll have $45,000 left between now and the election.

That quarterly haul came very close to Peterson, who raised $172,000. Their bankrolls at the close of the campaign, however, will be quite different.

Lee Byberg
Lee Byberg

Peterson started out with a giant lead financially that remains in place — his third quarter puts him over $1 million raised for the cycle and campaign officials said he had well over $500,000 cash-on-hand.

The 7th District in northwest Minnesota is heavily rural — the largest city is Moorhead, population 32,000. That makes advertising in the race a bit of a challenge. It doesn’t cost much to advertise here, but there’s no really efficient way to do it, especially on TV. Buying in Moorhead, for example, wastes money because you have to buy for the entire area, which includes the larger sister city of Fargo, N.D.

So candidates this year are taking to radio instead, in addition to the time-honored tradition of putting thousands of miles on their own vehicles.

Byberg’s low cash totals reflect just such a media expenditure — he has paid $75,000 for a radio advertising buy that started Monday. Peterson, who hasn’t done much radio advertising in the past, will do so this session on advice from national Democratic campaign officials who are encouraging incumbents to spend as if they’re facing a real threat.

Assuming both candidates have the cash to get their message out to voters, both campaigns then seem to be hinging their message around Peterson’s moderation: Is he enough of a pain in Nancy Pelosi’s backside, or does he effectively cover for the San Francisco-based speaker?

True, Peterson has a well-established record of damn-the-consequences speaking his mind,  but he also has a tight relationship with a speaker, who describes herself as a “fan” of his

“Peterson, like many Democrats of the mid-20th century, has fashioned an 'outsider' legislative record, emphasized district interests,  and developed an engaging personal style that have protected him from defeat,” said Smith. “His seniority and chairmanship now add to his ability to address the district's interests.  There are few like him left, but it makes him a natural target.

“Of course, funding Peterson's opponent also reflects the Republicans' confidence in other districts around country.  They are now funding third-tier contests because they are doing so well in the first- and second-tier locations.”

That means actual national attention for Byberg, whom the National Republican Congressional Committee has elevated to the first tier of its “Young Guns” challenger program. With their backing, Byberg is taking straight aim at Peterson’s record.

“Well, Collin Peterson has been fairly good in the past but I think now his true colors have shown,” Byberg said. “He has been able to successfully place himself as a moderate, but our district is fairly conservative.”

Those “true colors,” Byberg says, include voting for Pelosi as speaker of the House, a vote for the cap-and-trade climate bill and a refusal to endorse completely overturning the health care bill. In addition, he said, Peterson’s 20 years in Congress make him partly responsible for the ballooning national debt, which is now more than $13 trillion and climbing.

“People in the 7th district, they’re recognizing that he’s not who he says he is.”

Peterson spokeswoman Allison Myhre dismissed claims that her boss isn’t the same old moderate he’s always been.

“Collin Peterson has always run the same kind of campaign, year after year. He’s the same guy, and he defies the political party label. He’s not the traditional candidate, and I think the voters in Minnesota’s 7th District know him and know what he’s doing,” she said.

“I think they appreciate his honesty and his bluntness so they’re not as eager to toss him as they may be [about others] in other areas.”

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Comments (8)

It's very likely that Collin Peterson will hold the 7th District seat until he chooses to retire even though he's actually NOT a moderate. He's one of the most notable DINOs - very conservative, even to the extent of being among those who successfully lobbied strongly against the public option in the health care bill.

As such, he has repeatedly drawn the ire of the progressive end of the Democratic Party, even here in Minnesota (and even in the 7th District).

The Democrats, even progressives like me, continue to vote for him, however, because we care about the well being of our region and he has a strong ace in the hole which keeps large farmers, who are usually conservative Republicans even though they always do better, financially, under Democratic administrations, joining us in voting for him: He chairs the House Agriculture committee and in that position, has been able to protect American sugar producers (a huge cash crop in the 7th's Red River Valley) from foreign competition.

As a long term incumbent, he has considerable clout in other areas as well, due to his seniority, which will continue to some extent even if the Republicans take back the house (which remains to be seen) whereas a freshman house member, Republican or not, will be an insignificant presence and powerless to protect the interests of the 7th.

I suspect that, if Peterson were to go down, and the Republicans to take over the house, the protections American sugar producers have enjoyed will disappear in the name of "free market" (and in the name of making sure the profits from sugar sold in the US go to the already fabulously wealthy import/export middle men rather than the producers of sugar).

There would ensue a severe economic recession in West Central and Northwestern Minnesota and Eastern North Dakota as the profits from growing and processing sugar beets evaporated and all the economic activity supported by the beet growing farmers and the processing plant workers disappeared.

In other words, if Byberg is elected it will be just one more major hammer stroke in the Republican project of stripping the middle class of their income, their assets and any possibility they might have for a comfortable retirement, a stroke which will fall VERY heavily on West Central and Northwestern Minnesota and add to the economic woes of the state of Minnesota due to the massive income loss from that region and the resulting loss of state tax receipts from that income.

The people of the 7th will want to vote for Byberg just so they can call his office and listen to him talk.

I, myself, must admit to being fascinated while listening to a guy preaching the conservative truth in a Norwegian accent so thick you can almost smell the lutefisk.

If this seat somehow manages to slip from his grasp this time, I think it's safe to say he'll be back.

You are forgetting independent candidate Gene Waldorf (former extremely conservative DFLer from St Paul).

The 538 election analysis blog - perhaps the most statistically rigorous place for election news - shows Peterson with a consistent 20 percentage point lead and estimates he has a 98% chance of holding his seat.

I think your indicators are cloudy.

"If this seat somehow manages to slip from his grasp this time, I think it's safe to say he'll be back."

Possibly. But he won't be any more successful next time around. The more successful the Tea Party is this fall the shorter their shelf life will be. As it is, I suspect it will be even shorter than the '94 Republican wave.

I live in the 7th Congressional District. One of the reasons Peterson is continuously re-elected is because of the way the district lines were drawn after the census in 2000, not because he is so beloved by his constituents. The 7th District is huge. The people in the north, the sugarbeet growing area, already knew Peterson when he became our congressman. The people in the south, where I live, didn't know much about him. Whenever, someone tried to run against Peterson, he had to get name recognition throughout the entire district, north and south. It was always a daunting task. Peterson always had the sugarbeet growers in the bag right from the start.
I suspected Peterson was against Obamacare and was hopeful not only would be vote against it, but also back repeal of it. I was disappointed he waited until after Obamacare passed to send letters to the editors of the local newspapers explaining why he voted against it. I wanted him to come forward beforehand. It was an important issue to me (more than the sugarbeet industry is.)I will definitely vote for Byberg.

There is no comparable analogy to Peterson in the Republican party. He is more conservative than many Republicans and more conservative than virtually every Democrat. Except for the nameplate, I doubt Byberg would be right of Peterson on most issues. I seem to recall that Peterson had to run several times himself before getting the seat initially.

The sooner Peterson is ousted, the better. The man keeps going to bat for the large non-family farms. We've wasted enough money propping up the corporate agriculture machine and all it's given us is unhealthy food and more disease. We need to cut the farm subsidies dramatically. They don't help the family farm. They kill it, and they kill the environment.

Too bad he'll probably win.