Until last week, Rep. Collin Peterson and his GOP opponent, state Sen. Torrey Westrom, had not met head-to-head in what as become a hotly contested campaign in Minnesota’s 7th District.
Sure, there was the FarmFest congressional forum in August, but the two shared the stage with a dozen other candidates, and the questions were specifically tailored to the audience of farmers and agricultural interests.
But last week, Peterson and Westrom met in two half-hour debates, the only ones of the campaign.
The videos are available from Prairie Public Broadcasting and Pioneer Public Broadcasting, which broadcast the debates. Here are three takeaways:
A unique Obamacare debate
Peterson’s vote against the Affordable Care Act in 2010 has turned the debate over the law’s future into an examination of the intricacies of how Republicans are trying to repeal the law more than anything else.
Westrom, like most Republicans, wants to repeal “Obamacare,” and in the debates he mentioned talking to business owners around the district who are seeing big premium increases in the law’s second year. At the same time, he says there are good parts of the law that he wants to incorporate into a replacement, such as the pre-existing conditions ban or allowing those under 26 to stay on their parents’ plans.
Westrom has hit Peterson for voting against GOP-backed Obamacare repeal bills, and while Peterson said that he’s not a fan of the law as a whole (“I’d vote against it again if it was the same bill,” he said), he doesn’t want to repeal it all because he doesn’t think there’s enough political will to write a new law with those popular provisions still intact.
In other words, a debate that is black and white in most congressional races (a Democrat who supports the law and wants to keep it and a Republican who wants to repeal it wholesale) is a bit more nuanced in the 7th. Here it is on display in a lengthy, but relevant, back-and-forth between Westrom and Peterson from one of their debates:
Westrom: “You mentioned you voted against it. That was four years ago. You’ve multiple times voted to keep it the law of the land.”
Peterson: “Because it was 100 percent repeal.”
Westrom: “And you don’t want to support that?”
Peterson: “What are you going to do with the people on pre-existing conditions?”
Westrom: “You put it in a new bill.”
Peterson: “Well then how would you get that passed?”
Westrom: “You’d work bipartisanly, you’d work on pre-existing conditions, on students up to 26…”
Peterson: “Well, why don’t you work bipartisanly to fix the problems and leave the good parts in place? Why wouldn’t you do that?”
Westrom: “We can do that, too, but you can’t give up and say we’ll never get it repealed.”
Peterson: “I didn’t say we’ll never get it repealed. What I said was, in the current climate, I’m skeptical that you’d be able to keep the good parts of it.”
Westrom: “In the meantime you have people that are paying huge premium increases because it’s not repealed.”
Insider vs. bipartisan promises
One of the advantages of incumbency in any race is the ability to claim credit for legislative achievements and argue voters would be best served by retaining a representative with some clout. Peterson did that every time the discussion turned to his, and the district’s, signature issue: agriculture.
Peterson is the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee and can rightfully take credit for helping write and push through a new farm bill earlier this year. He said he’s running for re-election so he can oversee its implementation and protect it from opponents. Westrom said he would have voted for that bill had he been in Congress, so a debate over the policy itself is largely moot — but the question of clout versus fresh blood remains in play.
Peterson spent a lot of the debates name-dropping lawmakers with whom he’s worked and bipartisan policies he supports. Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, the Republican chairman of the Ag Committee with whom Peterson is close, came up multiple times as Peterson tried to remind voters about his experience in Washington.
“This happened because Frank Lucas and I, every day when went over to the House floor, we would sit down and talk together about what it was we needed to do [to pass the farm bill],” he said. “In some of these other committees, the ranking member and the chairman can’t even talk together, and that’s a problem.”
Westrom ran strongly against Washington dysfunction, and blamed Peterson, and especially Democratic leadership, for exacerbating it.
Throughout this campaign, Republicans have looked to use the trappings of Peterson’s office against him, highlighting his office’s car leases and reimbursements he receives for personal travel around the district. In their debates, Westrom went at it from a different angle, arguing voters need to send new people to Washington to try breaking up the legislative logjam.
“You don’t change Washington if you send the same players back to the table,” he said.
The Pelosi factor
To that end, Westrom went hard at Peterson for supporting Rep. Nancy Pelosi for House leadership positions.
Republicans successfully turned Pelosi, a San Francisco liberal, into a bogeyman during the 2010 elections, but it’s an attack that’s lost some of its juice since then (Pelosi, of course, has given up the majority and the power that comes with it). But she still has a role to play in the 7th. A Republican ad has linked Peterson to Pelosi, and Westrom said Peterson should have broken with Democrats and not supported her in last year’s House leadership elections.
In the debate, this ignited a discussion about the intensity of the candidates’ partisanship. Westrom blamed Democrats for a host of problems: Obamacare was “passed by Democratic leadership,” and the Keystone pipeline is “still not built, because of President Obama’s administration.” Peterson highlighted studies that show him among the most moderate House lawmakers, but Westrom said if that was the case, he wouldn’t have backed Pelosi, whose “agenda does not match the District 7 agenda. When you have leaders like that so far to the side, to the left, it’s hard to get things done.”
But Peterson said it’s a matter of working with the members send to Congress with you, and that Democrats aren’t alone in sending partisans to Washington.
“You can find people on your side of the aisle in Washington who are just as out of the mainstream as people on my side,” he said. “You’ve got the Tea Party folks on one side, and the liberal Democrats on the other, and that’s part of why we have the gridlock in Washington.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry