WASHINGTON — At the tail end of an expansive question-and-answer session with agricultural feed executives in Bloomington last week, Collin Peterson was asked a very simple question.
Will Democrats keep control of the House?
“Maybe we will. Maybe we won’t,” Peterson replied, matter-of-factly, before launching into a joke about how if Democrats lost the House it’d make life easier for him vis-à-vis the looming 2012 Farm Bill, which as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee he’s presently responsible for crafting.
The fact that Democrats may lose the House by itself isn’t notable, in fact, it’s come to be conventional wisdom across the country. Heck, even White House spokesman Robert Gibbs acknowledged that “there’s no doubt there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control.”
Difference is, Gibbs got pilloried for that remark by House Democratic leaders who were incensed that the White House would dare to utter such a thing, even though they’d all privately come to that same conclusion some months ago.
But if the past is any indication, Peterson won’t get in trouble in Washington for this latest episode of inconvenient truth-telling.
“This is not the first time Collin has said something or done something you would have thought would have gotten him into trouble with his own leadership,” said Norman Ornstein, a native Minnesotan, congressional expert and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
The list is long, but here’s a few: Peterson declared that the Dems’ long-championed climate bill is dead. He said the Obama administration shows by its actions that it doesn’t really support biofuels because it won’t commit to broad market access. Peterson said the stimulus law (which he voted against) was partially wasted and largely ineffective and that the health care bill (which he also opposed) was too far-reaching.
And that was just last week Monday afternoon.
Peterson aides contend he’s not doing anything different this year than in years past.
“This is nothing new,” said Peterson spokeswoman Allison Myhre of his independent streak. “People have come to expect this from him.”
Ironically, experts say those frequent outbursts that sometimes chafe at Democrats in D.C. are likely to keep Peterson around — and thus provide another vote to return those chafed party leaders to power.
“[Democrats’] hopes of retaining the majority depend on having a big tent and giving maximum leeway to members whose districts aren’t exactly like San Francisco,” Ornstein said, referencing the district of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — one of the most liberal districts in America.
Keeping in line with one’s district
Peterson’s own district is the only one in the state held by a Democrat that tilts to the right. John McCain beat Barack Obama there by 3 percentage points, while George W. Bush took 55 percent of the vote in both 2004 and 2000.
In his last election, Peterson took 72 percent of the vote.
Several Democrats in districts just like his are vulnerable this year. Next door in both the Dakotas sit Reps. Earl Pomeroy (North) and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (South), who both trail in the polls against GOP challengers.
So far, however, GOP challenger Lee Byberg hasn’t gained much traction against Peterson. The most recent campaign finance reports filed (through July 21) showed Byberg trailing Peterson in cash on hand by a margin of 29:1. Every national ratings group rates the 7th as a safe Democratic seat.
The frequent frank talk and occasional straying from the party line on big votes “establish him as an independent who’s not a particularly strong party hack,” Ornstein said.
“Colin Peterson’s success depends on continued electoral support from his constituents, including a mix of Democrats, Independents and Republicans,” said Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota who studies Congress. “His independence from his party on major policy issues, his authenticity, and his skill as chairman of the Agriculture Committee are critical to his continued popularity at home.
“While Peterson cannot stray too far — after all, his committee chairmanship must be approved at the beginning of each Congress by a vote of the Democratic Caucus — he is most concerned about the approval of his constituents who keep him there, not the approval of his party’s leadership.”
National Republicans say Peterson’s independence is catching amongst his colleagues.
“Collin Peterson started to run away from the Pelosi-Obama agenda before it was the cool thing to do,” said Tom Erickson, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee and a native of the 7th District.
“Now it seems like every nervous Democrat is trying to find a way to throw their party’s unpopular policies under the proverbial bus. What should really scare House Democrats like Peterson is that the playing field is continuing to expand as the failures of the Democrats’ economic agenda become more and more apparent.”
Pelosi’s office didn’t return a request seeking comment for this article, but if they’re particularly chafed at Peterson or looking to change the chairmanship of the Ag committee, they haven’t shown it. That may be because there is a line personified that he hasn’t crossed — Pelosi herself.
Some Democrats from districts that look like Peterson’s have openly questioned whether House Speaker Pelosi should return to that job. Peterson hasn’t — indeed he has repeatedly praised Pelosi’s skill at that position. Aides say he and Pelosi have a good working relationship and that the two understand one another and their respective positions.
One recent example concerns a bill Peterson offered (that Pelosi opposes) to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its presumed ability to regulate carbon emissions — a bill that has stalled in committee, but if it gets to a vote on the House floor would likely sail through.
Republicans offered him a discharge petition, which would force it out of its stalled committee and to the floor. Given that Pelosi directly controls what comes up for a vote, and indirectly to which committee a bill will go, the move would have been taken as a direct affront to the speaker. Peterson refused to sign the discharge petition — and has taken some heat from Republicans for that decision.
You can disagree with your party leaders, he explained to the crowd, but you don’t do things like that if you want to keep your committee job.
“Collin is a savvy politician,” Ornstein said. “He knows how to stay inside the tent but push against the canvas just enough.”