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How did Peterson sidestep the GOP bull’s-eye in the 7th District?

For Republicans, the district seemed an apt target for dislodging a veteran Democrat, but their efforts didn’t work.

After serving in Congress since January 1991, Peterson’s constituents know who he is and they didn’t fall for attempts to redefine him as a Washington liberal.
REUTERS/Mike Theiler

Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District was Republican red in 2012, when GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney easily defeated President Barack Obama there by nearly 10 percentage points.

Liz Fedor

For Republicans, the district seemed an apt target for dislodging a veteran Democrat, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, who was first elected in 1990.

A key plan of attack for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) in 2014 was criticizing Peterson for accepting government reimbursements to fly his airplane to meet with constituents.

The ad backfired for multiple reasons. But many people who live in the 7th District viewed the ad and other attacks as political hyperbole. The sprawling western Minnesota district extends from the Canadian border to southern Minnesota. A one-way car trip within northern Minnesota can take three hours.

The efficient option

So if you want to hold multiple meetings on a weekend in different parts of the 38-county district, air travel is the most efficient option. Yet the NRCC ad portrayed Peterson as a creature of Washington, demonizing him for using a plane at government expense to reach more district residents.

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In Tuesday’s election, 7th congressional district voters demonstrated that they are independent thinkers and they are not easily swayed by party labels or ads funded by interests outside the district.

They were ticket splitters in the 2014 election. Peterson won re-election with 54.2 percent of the vote over Republican challenger Torrey Westrom, a state senator from Elbow Lake. In the governor’s race, GOP candidate Jeff Johnson garnered 50.4 percent of 7th Congressional District votes compared with 43.6 percent for DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who won a second term statewide. U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat, narrowly bested GOP candidate Mike McFadden in the 7th District by 818 votes. In contrast, Peterson’s 7th District victory margin was 20,585 votes. 

Why constituents chose Peterson

Peterson was re-elected for the following reasons:

His politics align with the district:  Peterson is a moderate Democrat who is focused on solutions to problems, and he is wary of approaches that are offered by the right flank of the Republican Party and the left wing of the Democratic Party. Since his election, he has been a pragmatic centrist, and he keeps the lines of communication open with all factions within the U.S. House. Peterson, an accountant by profession, analyzes proposed policies based on how they’ll affect the middle class. But he also examines policies from the perspective of business and agriculture interests, who’ve collaborated with Peterson for decades.

Valuable seniority on the Agriculture Committee: Peterson is the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, and he played a leading role in crafting the last overhaul of the Farm Bill. Amid the wheat fields and sugar-beet acres that dominate the Red River Valley, voters along the political spectrum are concerned about clout on the Agriculture Committee. So there are plenty of Republican farmers who cast ballots on Tuesday for Peterson because they weren’t willing to discard his seniority and relationships in the House.

Obamacare wasn’t a potent issue: Peterson voted against the Affordable Care Act, so it was difficult for challenger Westrom to hurt him by linking him to unpopular aspects of Obamacare. During debates, Westrom repeatedly mentioned House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, because he hoped voters would reject Peterson because of Pelosi’s liberal profile. That argument didn’t prevail because of Peterson’s independence on health care and other issues.

Didn’t accept redefinition by GOP

After serving in Congress since January 1991, Peterson’s constituents know who he is and they didn’t fall for attempts to redefine him as a Washington liberal. As a Bluedog Democrat, people know he has the capacity to work with Republicans. His bluntness sometimes irks Democratic and Republican leaders, but he’s always fixated on solutions.

7th District voters, who lean Republican, sent Peterson back to Washington because they want results. They judged Peterson on his actions, not the rhetoric that was used against him.

Liz Fedor is an editor at Twin Cities Business magazine and covered 7th Congressional District politics for the Grand Forks Herald. She is on Twitter @LizFedor.

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