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In Minnesota’s Seventh District, Republicans weigh who’s best to take on Collin Peterson

After a lengthy convention over Zoom, the party endorsed former Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach. But she now faces four primary challengers, including two-time previous candidate Dave Hughes.

Michelle Fischbach
Michelle Fischbach
Fischbach for Congress

It took eight rounds of voting, but at the end of Seventh District Republicans’ Zoom-conference convention, former Minnesota Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach earned the party’s endorsement to take on fifteen-term Rep. Collin Peterson.

Fischbach has a number of advantages. She was recruited to run by Rep. Tom Emmer, who represents Minnesota’s Sixth District and also runs the National Republican Campaign Committee. And she has the endorsement of both House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy and President Donald Trump.

But those factors, and her endorsement by the party, haven’t deterred her opposition. As of today, four other Republican candidates will appear on the primary ballot: Noel Collis, a gastroenterologist who is self-funding his campaign; Jayesun Sherman, a licensed minister and substitute teacher; William Louwagie of Marshall; and Dave Hughes, the endorsed Republican candidate in 2016 and 2018.

Of the four others running, Hughes was the strongest contender during the endorsement process. At one point, it seemed as if Hughes might be the endorsed candidate. Now, the competition has moved to the primary election.

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Hughes and Fischbach are not radically different in terms of their politics. They both emphasize their support for President Donald Trump. They both emphasize their support for gun rights, often talk about valuing the “right to life” by opposing abortion and believe in heavier border security. Those views may be a good match for the district itself, one of Minnesota’s most conservative and one of very few conservative-leaning districts in the entire country still represented by a Democrat in Congress.

The question of the GOP primary in the Seventh District, then, comes down to which candidate has the best chance of defeating Peterson in the fall. Is it Fischbach, the endorsed candidate with fundraising power and the endorsement of the president and national GOP leadership? Or is it Hughes, the candidate from the last two cycles who’s spent years talking to voters?

Third time’s a charm

For the last two cycles, Hughes has eroded Peterson’s historically strong hold on the district. Peterson held on in 2016, despite President Trump winning the district by more than 30 points. But he only beat Hughes by 5.1 percentage points. And in 2018, his lead was just 4.3 percentage points.

photo of dave hughes
Dave Hughes
Hughes, a veteran of the United States Air Force and currently a drone instructor pilot, said that he initially did not plan to run in the primary after losing the endorsement. But then Hughes hosted a “listening session” with his supporters to get a sense of what he should do next. He said he came away from that session disillusioned with the party endorsement process and concerned about the way it was conducted online, saying that some of his supporters had trouble with the voting process.

He decided to keep running. “All of the technical efforts or technical problems that should have put the endorsement into question sufficiently that CD-7 shouldn’t have, should not have awarded the endorsement, frankly,” he said. “That’s what a lot of my supporters think.”

Technical issues aside, the endorsement process also brought out one of the unseemlier episodes in the campaign: Hughes says that Sam Winter, Fischbach’s former campaign manager, harassed him with calls, in-part to interfere with his landline internet connection and interrupt his endorsement speeches to county-level Republican conventions. According to Hughes, Winter called more than 300 times during the month of April. Winter was recently prosecuted by Kittson County. After initially pleading not guilty, he pleaded guilty to harassing Hughes earlier this month. Winter and his attorney did not respond to request for comment. The Fischbach campaign says Winter resigned and is no longer a part of the campaign.

James Whitlow, a Hughes supporter from Roseau County and a convention delegate, said he’s glad there’s going to be a primary to sort everything out. “There were the technological issues that they were having during the conventions,” he said. “I just wasn’t sure how it all went down.”

Whitlow, who said he is a former Peterson voter, has been a supporter of Hughes for the last few election cycles. And while he believes all the candidates would be good, he said he’s cautious of career politicians. Instead, he wants to see “not just Republicans, but constitutional conservatives,” he said. “Not just a party line, not just people that are going to pander to the party, but people that are actually conservative and actually believe in our constitution and are willing to fight for it.”

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Dawn Anderson of Otter Tail County said she supports Hughes because she’s gotten to talk to each of the candidates. “I don’t get the feeling that they have any ideas yet on what they want to do,” she said of the other candidates. As for Fischbach, she said she had one question for her that she couldn’t answer well.

“I wanted to know what her plan was to balance the budget. And she said she really didn’t know that she hadn’t hadn’t figured that out yet,” Anderson said. “And Dave has got very, very specific ideas on what to do. And that’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for a candidate that knows what the issues are and has thought through processes to fix them.”

Considering Fischbach had the support of McCarthy and the Trump campaign prior to the county level endorsement process, Hughes believes Fischbach’s endorsement will come with strings. “He doesn’t talk to you unless he wants something from you,” he said of McCarthy, adding he would still work with him if elected. “Kevin McCarthy has had five years to reach out to me in some fashion and he never has.”

(David FitzSimmons, a former state representative who has worked on Rep. Tom Emmer’s campaigns and is Fischbach’s new campaign manager, had a simple response: “Easy for someone who doesn’t get any endorsements to say he didn’t want them.”)

Hughes contends that if the D.C. establishment had helped him in 2016, he would already be in office. “We’ve had Peterson for four more years because they’re all concerned with their own agendas rather than universally backing the Republican candidate,” he said. (After receiving the endorsement of President Donald Trump in 2018, Hughes has now received at least three cease and desist letters from the Trump campaign asking him to stop referring to the 2018 endorsement in 2020. Trump has endorsed Fischbach in 2020.)

Tim Lindberg, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris, said the primary fight will be uphill for Hughes. “It is difficult to argue that you are the best candidate to win a seat that Republicans should long ago have held when you already lost two races,” he said. “Given Trump’s support for Fischbach as well, it would be a long-shot for Hughes to secure the party’s nomination this fall.”

Fischbach’s advantages

Fischbach has very clear advantages. She has experience, serving in the Minnesota Senate from 1996 to 2018 and as that body’s president in 2017 and 2018. She was also briefly lieutenant governor of Minnesota after then-Gov. Mark Dayton appointed the previous lieutenant governor, Tina Smith, to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Al Franken. Those factors make her one of the most well-known politicians ever to challenge Peterson. She also has the endorsement of the party and a very clear fundraising lead — in total, Fischbach has raised more than $900,000, compared to Hughes’ just over $66,000.

“We are very close to being the highest raising campaign ever against Collin Peterson,” said FitzSimmons. That record is currently held by State Sen. Torrey Westrom, who ran against Peterson in 2014 and lost 54.2% to 45.7%.

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In addition to her larger campaign fundraising haul, Fischbach also has the support of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, an organization with a Super PAC that is led by Scott Fischbach, her husband; and the National Right to Life Victory Fund, another Super PAC that is co-lead by Darla St. Martin, Michelle Fischbach’s mother.

Tom Marthaler of Osakis, a Fischbach supporter, said he believes she’s the “best chance to turn the district red.” Marthaler said she’s been adequately vetted, making her a strong candidate if people around the country want to donate. “Fischbach is not a risk if someone in Houston, Texas wants to write out a check. It helps take back the House.”

Ben Anderson of Otter Tail County said he wasn’t involved as much in the last election cycles, but Fischbach’s announcement got him excited. “I was just happy to see somebody of her caliber and experience deciding to run,” he said. “I mean, when I first heard she was running, I was just like, ‘Oh, this is, you know, this is great. This is going to be a difference maker for sure.’”

The Fischbach campaign’s calculus relies on the perception that she is obviously the best suited candidate to take on Peterson. And they don’t really see Hughes or the other candidates as possible contenders at this point. “It’s a guy that had two cracks and didn’t make it,” said FitzSimmons. “He obviously has no real ability to fundraise, I think he was under $3,000 on hand. Anybody who thinks that someone at $3,000 is going to beat a 30 year incumbent chairman who has a million and a half is not thinking clearly.”

The last independent rural Democrats

Peterson’s campaign reserves are indeed substantial: He has more than $1.2 million on hand for the general election. And as the Chair of the House Agriculture Committee, he has substantial support from the agricultural industry, specifically the sugar beet cooperatives.

Rep. Collin Peterson
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Rep. Collin Peterson
Peterson argues he’s one of the only independent rural Democrats left in the country, let alone Minnesota. “There aren’t many like me left in Congress. Rural Democrats are few and far between and I’m concerned that rural America is getting left behind,” he said in a statement announcing his re-election campaign. Peterson’s record bears that claim of independence out: His votes in Congress are frequently at odds with the Democratic caucus as a whole; he was recently the only Democrat to vote against an expansion to the Affordable Care Act proposed by Rep. Angie Craig of Minnesota’s Second District.

But Fischbach’s campaign believes his votes against his caucus aren’t as important as all the times he votes with Democrats. “If you look at those votes, they make a lot of noise,” said FitzSimmons. “They have no real impact. And when you look at them in aggregate, they’re a small number.”

Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan group that rates the competitiveness of House seats, shifted 20 races toward Democrats earlier this month, including Minnesota’s First and Third Districts. But the Seventh District remains a Democratic toss-up.

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“We’re still, one of I believe, 15 Democrat held toss-ups,” FitzSimmons said. “So I think most people get it — that this is a must win if Republicans are going to have a path back to the majority.”