In Minnesota’s Seventh Congressional District, Michelle Fischbach isn’t just running against 15-term U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson. She’s running against the agricultural sector.
The Seventh, one of the most competitive districts in the country, is represented by Peterson, a Democrat in a district that overwhelmingly voted for Trump. But the race isn’t just along party lines: While Fischbach is supportive of agriculture, the sector will be collectively spending millions of dollars to keep Peterson in office (and her out of it).
Peterson is a conservative Democrat who frames himself as a political independent. But he is also the powerful Chair of the House Agriculture Committee, which presides over the Farm Bill, an all-encompassing agriculture and rural infrastructure bill signed into law every five years.
Peterson has the endorsement of Minnesota Farm Bureau’s PAC, which he’s earned every election cycle since 2008, and the bulk of his campaign contributions come from companies and cooperatives, many of which represent different industries in the agriculture sector. Perhaps most noticeably, Peterson has the unequivocal support of the sugar beet industry, a prominent player in Minnesota politics and his district’s most identifiable crop; so far the industry aims to spend more than $1,000,000 to keep Peterson in office.
Every election cycle, the Seventh District gets a little bit more red. But time and time again, Peterson has pulled through to win the seat. In 2016, when Trump won the district by over 30 points, Peterson still won by five points.
In 2020, Republicans in Washington want to test a theory: if Peterson faced a well-funded challenger with name recognition, will he lose? They believe former Lieutenant Gov. Michelle Fischbach is that challenger.
But in between Republicans and winning a district that supports Trump is the agriculture sector. Peterson’s long tenure on the committee and experience working on the Farm Bill is not lost on farmers and producers. Neither is the fact that if he were to lose, the chairmanship of the committee would go to a representative of another Ag-heavy state like Texas.
“I think that’s a big concern in agriculture here in Minnesota is that we do have the unique opportunity with the House [Agriculture] Committee chairman being from Minnesota,” said Amber Glaeser, Director of Public Policy at the Minnesota Farm Bureau. “So knowing that he knows the issues that are happening on the ground here in Minnesota, happening in our small communities, [and having] that powerful voice in the ag committee.”
Ray Johnson, the Farm Bureau PAC’s chair, was out harvesting corn and sugar beets when he spoke on why he believes Peterson is still the candidate for the district. “I favor Peterson over Fischbach, and it probably has to do with history,” he said. “Collin Peterson has been a true advocate for agricultural rural communities.”
Johnson said that even a year ago, Peterson’s bipartisan impact was evident. He said that when Vice President Mike Pence visited the Johnson farm, he remembers how critical Pence said Peterson was to passing the U.S.-Mexico trade agreement. “Those types of scenarios really hit home to me,” he said.
Agriculture is central to the Seventh: According to the USDA’s 2017 agricultural census, the district ranks fourth in the country for family farms, sixth in total agriculture sales, and first in sugar beet production.
But Peterson’s campaign contributions and support aren’t just from Minnesota’s agriculture industry: they come from groups around the country, like the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and the Dairy Farmers of America. And many of those groups aren’t only dropping in now — they’ve supported Peterson for years.
“Representative Peterson’s always been there,” said Jackie Klippenstein, Vice President of Industry and Legislative Affairs at Dairy Farmers of America. “So this is not about the first contribution that we’ve given him. We’ve supported him his entire career in Congress.”
Dairy Farmers of America’s PAC is funded by cooperative members and staff and then distributed to candidates that support their industry. In particular, Klippenstein said Peterson hasn’t just been supportive of agriculture as a whole, but the dairy industry specifically. “He has a lot of dairy producers in his state and he really knows the issues that are important to farmers and tries to work with others to find creative solutions to some of those challenges they face,” she said.
The sugar beet industry is also backing Peterson, going so far as to forming a super PAC to help ensure that he keeps his seat.
And there are obvious reasons why they would. Peterson has been a steadfast advocate of the sugar program in the Farm Bill, so much so that one industry lobbyist has called Peterson “the godfather” of sugar beets. This week, the Committee for Stronger Rural Communities, the Super PAC formed American Crystal Sugar, will launch a six-figure television ad in support of Peterson.
That ad features Erik Bakke, who farms just east of Ulen, Minnesota. Bakke grows wheat, corn, soybeans, sugar beets and black beans. Bakke’s reasons for supporting Peterson are straightforward: he sees him as bipartisan, independent, and he knows the sector very well. Especially sugar beets.
“He knows the crop. He understands the crop, He understands the importance, the economic driver, it is to the whole Red River Valley. From Fargo to Fargo or Moorhead to Drayton,” Bakke said. “Just the importance of that and his ability to fight for us to keep a sugar program in the Farm Bill … He knows the crop better than any other representative out in D.C.”
Bakke said that Peterson’s influence on the House Agriculture Committee is critical to the district doing well. “What’s good for what’s good for ag is good for the Seventh District,” said Bakke. When we have a good year and farmers are doing good, everybody else is doing good too. And they’ll have a lot of small business owners tell you the same thing.”
The Committee for Stronger Rural Communities itself is chaired by Kelly Erickson of Hallock, a board member for American Crystal Sugar, who farms wheat, soybeans, canola, and sugar. Erickson said the mission behind the group is simple: it’s important to keep Peterson in the position that he’s in right now. And that means spending a lot of money.
“In today’s world of politics, it’s something that you need to do,” he said. “The Seventh District has been held by Collin Peterson for a long time. The Seventh District of Minnesota is very rural, and we talk an awful lot about ag, but there’s all kinds of things that keep rural American moving. That’s our rural hospitals, hardware stores, everything we depend on. And we depend on Collin Peterson.”
Neither Bakke nor Erickson had anything negative to say about Peterson’s opponent, but when asked if they could think of any farmers they knew who support Fischbach, they were clear.
“I can’t think of any,” said Erickson.
“I can’t either,” said Bakke.
Fischbach is a formidable opponent for Peterson. She was recruited to run for the seat by Rep. Tom Emmer, the District Sixth District congressman, who also chairs the House Republicans campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee. She also has the endorsement of President Donald Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.
Fischbach’s strategy seems to be tying Peterson to more-progressive Democrats in Congress: When asked how Fischbach’s agricultural policies would differ from Peterson, she didn’t point to a specific policy but instead criticized other Democrats.
“The biggest thing that affects agriculture is who the representative from Minnesota’s Seventh District puts into power,” she said. “If there’s another vote and another term for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, it keeps the Democrats’ drive alive for the Green New Deal.”
Fischbach has raised more than $1,000,000 to take on Peterson — much of it from individual contributions, a point that her campaign and Republicans like to emphasize and contrast with Peterson’s own fundraising.
“With 75 percent of his total fundraising coming from Corporate PACs and approximately five percent of donations coming from donors giving under $200, it’s clear who wants Collin Peterson in Congress – and it isn’t his district,” said RNC Spokesperson Preya Samsundar.
Fischbach echoed that, saying: “Peterson is supported with millions of dollars from many companies around the country for his campaign and the super PAC set up to support him. The vast majority of my donations come from small donors across Minnesota, now more than 13,000 individuals.”
In addition to individual donors, Fischbach has taken in a lot of contributions from current and former Republican members in Congress, like former Rep. Mia Love of Utah, Emmer, and E-PAC, a group created by Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik of New York to elect more Republican women.
One person who can speak to Fischbach’s policies, when it comes to agriculture, is her campaign manager: Dave FitzSimmons, a long-time Republican operative. In 2010, Rep. Tom Emmer, then running for governor, called FitzSimmons “the hog farmer who runs my campaign.”
“My family is still in the business in hogs and grain,” FitzSimmons said. “And so agriculture is obviously a big part of my life and my family’s story.”
FitzSimmons said that he has no doubt Fischbach would do well representing agricultural interests in the district. He mostly wonders how many more terms Super PACs like the Committee for Stronger Rural Communities want to give Peterson.
“If he was elected again, it’d be a 16th? Okay. So then is it seventeen to get to another ag bill? And then how many?”
In all, FitzSimmons said it wouldn’t be a huge deal if Peterson no longer chaired the agriculture committee, for two reasons: one, the last Farm Bill was passed under a Republican chairman; and two, you can find agriculture all around the country.
“Many of the commodities that you deal with are not endemic to Minnesota,” he said. “They’re not things that are just here, you know. People around the country are advocates for corn and soybeans and hogs and cattle and dairy.”
Fischbach said she would absolutely ensure she served on the House Agriculture Committee if elected. And while Fischbach is supportive of agriculture, she says that even if sugar beet farmers are spending big to support her opponent, she will fight for them.
“I support the sugar beet farmers in our district,” she said. “Even though their leadership is pouring in hundreds of thousands to defeat me, it will not diminish my commitment to fight for the interests of sugar beet farmers in my district.”
Looking toward the future
The DFL has pointed to one specific instance to illustrate why they believe Peterson is miles beyond Fischbach when it comes to agriculture: When Fischbach was on a radio interview last year with KFGO, she couldn’t give the price of soybeans to host Joel Heitkamp.
“For example, okay, what is a bushel of soybeans worth right now, roughly?” Heitkamp asked.
“I didn’t look this morning, I’m sorry,” Fischbach said.
“Well just give me a roundabout figure,” he responded.
“I, you know what, I, I’m sorry, I can’t do that right now,” she said.
But really, for many of the farmers that talked to MinnPost, it comes down to Peterson’s history. And the fact that if Fischbach wins, there won’t be a Minnesotan running the House Agriculture Committee.
“When it comes to agriculture issues, I think the differences between us are pretty stark,” Peterson said. “Farmers across my district, and across the country appreciate my experience and knowledge on these issues, especially when times are tough.”
But Fischbach, without acknowledging that Peterson’s loss will result in a leadership shakeup on the House Agriculture Committee, said she just wants to look to the future.
“I look forward to getting to work on the Agriculture Committee as we look ahead to the coming 2023 farm bill,” she said. “I really want to make sure we have a big focus on the next generation of farmers because there is a lot of turn over already happening. While it is important to learn from the past 30 years in agriculture, I think looking ahead to the next 30 years of agriculture is more important.”