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As D.C. Republicans anoint a candidate in Minnesota’s Seventh District, challengers say ‘not so fast’

“They’re basically giving the middle finger to the whole endorsing process,” said Dave Hughes, who has twice been the Republican nominee to challenge Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson.

Former Lt. Governor Michelle Fischbach
Former Lt. Governor Michelle Fischbach is not the only candidate in the race — and some of her competitors are not happy about what they see as intervention from outside the district.

Word came down from Washington: former Lt. Governor Michelle Fischbach should be the Republican nominee for Congress in Minnesota’s Seventh District.

The district, represented for the past twenty-eight years by Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, has long been been a tempting target for Republicans. Cook Political Report says the district leans conservative (R+12). In 2016, Trump won the district by a margin of over thirty points.

The top Republican in the House, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, endorsed Fischbach in October. She was recruited for the role by Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota’s Sixth District, who also chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans. And in Minnesota, Fischbach quickly garnered the endorsement of both Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and Minnesota House Republican Leader Kurt Daudt.

But Fischbach is not the only candidate in the race — and some of her competitors are not happy about what they see as intervention from outside the district.

“They’re basically giving the middle finger to the whole endorsing process,” said Dave Hughes, an Air Force Veteran from Karlstad, who has twice been the Republican nominee to challenge Peterson.

“I mean, how do you anoint her from Washington, you know, six months before the endorsing convention? It’s absurd.”

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A crowded field

Hughes has reason to feel left behind. He’s run for the seat twice before and filed for his third run back in February. In 2016, he lost to incumbent Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson by a margin of 5.1 percentage points. In 2018, he lost to Peterson again, but by a smaller, 4.3 percentage-point margin. In 2018, he got an endorsement from President Donald Trump, who tweeted Hughes is “strong on Crime, the Border, our 2nd Amendmen [sic], Trade, Military and Vets.“

Dave Hughes
Dave Hughes
Nor is Hughes the only Republican hopeful in the race. Jayesun Sherman of Windom filed to run in early February, making him the first to file to run on the Republican ticket. Army veteran Joel Novak of Alexandria filed to run in June. And Dr. Noel Collis, a gastroenterologist from Albany, announced in September.

But so far, Fischbach’s entry into the race made the biggest splash. Fischbach, of Paynesville, served in the Minnesota Senate from 1996 to 2018, serving as Senate president for part of that term. She became lieutenant governor to Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton in 2018, when the governor appointed Tina Smith to the U.S. Senate following the resignation of Sen. Al Franken. In 2018, Fischbach was former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s running mate in an unsuccessful primary bid for governor.

After her entry into the Seventh District race, Cook Political Report changed its rating of the race from “Lean Democratic” to “Toss-Up.” It described the race not only as competitive in the general for Fischbach, but in the primary as well, saying Fischbach (unlike Hughes) “will have strong backing from the NRCC.”

Jayesun Sherman
Jayesun Sherman
Technically, the National Republican Congressional Committee has a policy of not endorsing in primary races. Emmer told RollCall in 2018 that it would be a “mistake” to meddle in primaries, saying that it would be too driven by Washington. Emmer has vowed to stay neutral in the Seventh District race.

Hughes disputes that. “He can say that he hasn’t named her or he can say ‘No, no, we’re just hanging back and we respect the process,” he said. “But he’s given the signal to the donor class. And that’s unfortunate, because if we have respect for the grassroots process, then no signal should be given to the donor class.”

Hughes sees the endorsements from State and Washington Republican leadership as meddling in the primary. “If a bunch of her fellow career public servants back her that’s fine,” he said. “I have nothing negative to say about her or them. But I can tell you, we out here in Western Minnesota, we want the change. I mean, that’s why President Trump won by 31 points in 2016. We’re tired of the swamp. We’re tired of career politicians.”

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Similarly, Collis suggested Fischbach is not the candidate of the grassroots. “It’s not a secret that she is being [supported by] the Washington establishment and she is their choice,” he said. “And therefore a case could be made that she is beholden to them.”

Joel Novak
Joel Novak
Collis pointed to Fischbach not knowing or being able to estimate the price of a bushel of soybeans in a radio interview with KFGO as evidence that she might be out of touch with the district.

When asked about Republican leader McCarthy’s endorsement, Fischbach campaign spokesperson Sam Winter said, “We need to win districts like this. And I think he has faith that Michelle is the type of candidate that can win in this race. And so he’s acting quickly, just sort of to ensure that we are as successful as we can be,” Winter said.

“So I don’t know if it’s odd, but I do think his decisive action quickly is signaling how serious he is viewing this opportunity.”

The money race

Between Fischbach’s campaign announcement in early September and the reporting deadline at the end of the month, she raised $100,772 from donors. Most of Fischbach’s haul — $81,033 — came from individuals, including Robert Ulrich, the retired CEO of Target, and Robert Kierlin, the retired CEO of Fastenal in Winona, who had previously donated to Hughes.

Fundraising by category for CD7 Republicans
Note: The most recent reporting period's end was Sept. 30.
Source: Federal Election Commission

But it’s not just individuals who were quick to support Fischbach. She also raised more than $19,000 from political committees.

The Majority Committee PAC, led by California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, gave $10,000 to Fischbach’s campaign. She also received $5,000 from the Republican Majority Fund, $2,500 from the Innovation PAC and $1,000 Indiana Rep. Susan Brooks’ committee.

Dr. Noel Collis
Dr. Noel Collis
In mid-September, according to her FEC report, Fischbach received a Pawlenty for Governor donor list as an in-kind donation.

Fischbach has spent about $9,400 on direct mailings and had nearly $85,000 on hand as of the end of September, according to her report.

Hughes closed out September having raised $38,135 —  about $36,000 of which came from individual donors. In January, prior to Fischbach’s announcement, he received $2,000 from Rep. Tom Emmer’s committee.

By the end of the reporting period, Hughes had nearly $19,000 on hand. So far he’s spent $4,500 each on political consultants, and direct mail, and spent on email and Facebook ads.

Sherman has only raised about $4,000 and Novak has yet to file a campaign finance report with the Federal Election Commission. Among the Republican contenders, it’s Collis who has the most cash in the bank.

Collis had more than $128,000 on hand as of Sept. 30. Most of his cash comes from $110,000 in personal loans to his campaign, while $21,800 was raised from individual donors.

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“I gave the loan because I believe in what I’m doing and I’m backing it up with my own resources that I’ve earned myself,” Collis explained.

Collis has spent roughly $7,000 on campaign consulting and says he has three staffers.

The last Blue Dog

Of the original Blue Dog Democrats, a caucus of conservative and centrist Democrats founded in 1995, incumbent Seventh District Rep. Collin Peterson is the last.

Peterson, the Chair of the Agriculture Committee, has always framed himself as someone independent from the party line. In the 116th Congress, he’s voted against a majority of House Democrats about 15.2 percent of the time, according to ProPublica. Peterson was the sole Democrat to vote along with Republicans and against the reathorization of the Violence Against Women Act, saying he didn’t agree with the language included on firearms. He also voted against an amendment that aimed to block a ban on transgender military service members.

Rep. Collin Peterson
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Rep. Collin Peterson, the Chair of the Agriculture Committee, has always framed himself as someone independent from the party line.
In Washington, Republicans have pointed to Peterson selling his longtime D.C. condominium as evidence that he doesn’t plan to stay in office much longer. But in an interview with Politico, Peterson said the reasons were essentially two-fold: He wanted money to expand his farm in Minnesota and he was getting tired of living near “The Wharf,” a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Southwest Washington.

“It’s too many people,” he told Politico. “That’s the main reason I got out of there. You can’t drive, you can’t park, you can’t go to the grocery store. There’s lines. It’s all these millennials.”

Peterson hasn’t made a decision yet on if he intends to run again, but he’s certainly moving forward as usual: showing up at events and attending parades in the district. And if Peterson does decide to run, he has allies: the sugar beet industry, which he’s long supported, intends to spend heavily via a super PAC to re-elect him.

When asked about the Republican primary, Peterson recused himself from commenting and said he’d wade in when it’s clear who his challenger would actually be.

“Right now, the five Republicans who have announced their run for Congress in the 7th District are running against each other for their party’s nomination, not against me, so I’ll let their party insiders sort that out before I need to pay attention,” Peterson said.

“As for those who want to make their voices heard at my office, I welcome all constituents who want to call, email or stop by to share their opinions.”

Hughes, who believes media outlets haven’t given him a fair amount of coverage (he has only one mention in the Politico story), said that after winning the nomination twice, the burden isn’t on him to prove himself. It’s on the other challengers.

“It’s my race. I had eighty-one percent of the delegates last time. A lot of them are still with me and the burden is on her and the three other Republicans,” Hughes said.

“The onus is on them. And I’m the front runner no matter what.”