After fifteen terms in Congress, Rep. Collin Peterson will not be going back to Washington.
Peterson was an aberration. Elected in 1991, he was the last original Blue Dog Democrat, a group of conservative leaning Democrats in Congress. He managed to hold on to his district in 2016 even though President Donald Trump won it by over 30 points.
In 2020, running against Trump-backed candidate and former Minnesota Lt. Governor Michelle Fischbach, his brand of independent conservative politics was not enough. Fischbach won the race with 53 percent of the vote to Peterson’s 40.
“There was just no reason for him to stay there,” said Tom Marthaler of Osakis, who supported Fischbach in the race. “He had become detached from his constituents. I won’t sit here and say that he didn’t serve the district well, but he was no longer a good fit.”
An agricultural district
In Minnesota’s Seventh District, the largest by land size in the state, agriculture is at the center of the economy. 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.
In order to get around the district, Peterson, who used to be a Certified Public Accountant, learned to fly a single-engine airplane.
Peterson is also a farmer and a long-time supporter of the sugar beet industry, which he’s aided significantly as a ranking member, and now the chair, of the House Agriculture Committee.
“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,” Kelly Erickson, a farmer and board member for American Crystal Sugar, the sugar beet agricultural cooperative based in Moorhead, said in July. “That’s our rural hospitals, hardware stores, everything we depend on. And we depend on Collin Peterson.”
While agricultural interests around the country collectively helped fund Peterson’s campaign, Erickson led the most expensive effort: a sugar beet backed Super PAC — called The Committee for Stronger Rural Communities — solely devoted to keeping Peterson in office.
In the end, the group spent more than $1,000,000 trying to keep Peterson, the “godfather” of the sugar beet industry, in his seat.
“Collin’s bipartisan record on health care, lowering prescription drug prices, trade and farm policy, was simply not enough to overcome the partisan bitterness that is dividing our nation,” Erickson said in a statement after Peterson’s loss. “We… still believe that we can work together in an effort toward compromise and doing what’s right. To that end, we offer our congratulations to Michelle Fischbach, and our members look forward to working with her on the issues that matter most to rural Minnesotans.”
The district has been shifting more and more Republican over the years, but Republicans have had no success before now in taking the district from Peterson. And they’ve definitely tried before.
The last time Republicans spent this much money on the Seventh District, Peterson defeated state Sen. Torrey Westrom by more than 8 percentage points in 2014. But the margin after Westrom continued to get slimmer. Peterson’s next Republican opponent, Dave Hughes, a retired Air Force major, had minimal support from the national GOP, but was still able to shrink Peterson’s margin to 5.1 points in 2016. In a rematch against Hughes in 2018, Peterson won by 4.3 percentage points.
This time, Republicans in Washington placed their bet on Fischbach, a long-time state senator and former Lt. Governor. She was recruited by Rep. Tom Emmer, Minnesota’s Six District Congressman and chair of the National Republican Campaign Committee (House Republicans’ campaign arm). She received the endorsement of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and President Donald Trump.
But her strong endorsement from Washington Republicans wasn’t without critique: Hughes wanted to challenge Peterson again. The race to get the Republican endorsement in the district was bitter: Fischbach’s original campaign manager, Sam Winter, was fired after Hughes accused him of harassing him. After initially pleading not guilty, Winter pleaded guilty to harassing Hughes in July.
Even after losing the endorsement, Hughes continued to challenge Fischbach in the primary, along with a few other candidates. Fischbach won the primary 58.8 percent to Hughes 22.2 percent (Noel Collis, another candidate, received 15.1 percent of the vote).
Additionally, a contingent of county Republican parties in the district, against the advice of the state Republican party and the CD-7 district-level party, moved to “rescind” Fischbach’s endorsement: Otter Tail, Pennington, and Rousseau. At the time, the Minnesota GOP said individual counties did not have the authority to rescind an endorsement that’s made district-wide.
“Minnesota delegates in the 7th Congressional District put their faith, trust, and votes behind Michelle Fischbach and the MNGOP does as well,” Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan said at the time. “Individual counties or BPOUs do not have the authority to ‘rescind’ an endorsement that they didn’t technically grant in the first place.”
Fischbach joins Congress
“Hardworking men and women from western Minnesota made their voices heard and showed that they will no longer accept Collin Peterson as their representative,” Fischbach said on Facebook on Election Night. “I am grateful for the support and am excited to hit the ground running in Washington to work on behalf of Minnesota.”
When she arrives in Washington for orientation, Fischbach will join a large class of Republican women joining Congress. This is a drastic shift for Republicans, who, in the current Congress represent a very small share of the number of women in office: of the 101 women in the 116th Congress, 88 are Democrats and 13 are Republicans. Republicans have essentially doubled the number of women serving in their delegation, but their numbers will still be about a quarter of the women in the Democratic delegation.
Fischbach will also not be in the majority: House Republicans were able to claim several new seats on Election Day, but Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, still have a majority.
After a clear loss of more than 13 percentage points, Peterson, who can occasionally be abrasive or sarcastic, simply gave a formal statement of concession.
“I’d like to thank the people of the Seventh District for their support over the years. Serving them in Washington, D.C. has been a great honor, and I respect their decision to move in a different direction. We ran a strong and positive campaign, but with the president winning this district by 30 points again, and the millions in outside money that was spent to attack me, the partisan tilt of this district was just too much to overcome.”
Thirty years ago, Mathaller, the Fischbach supporter from Osakis, said he used to fundraise for Peterson. But he contends that the Democratic party, which he used to identify with, has changed too much for him. He thinks Democrats are too supportive of policies that guarantee easy access to abortions.
“The DFL party in Minnesota kicked me out 25 years ago and that’s about the time they started ignoring Collin,” he said. “I don’t like it happening, I really don’t.”
In 2020, Marthaler says he also voted for Trump.
“Washington politics have changed,” he said.
“And the people of the Seventh District kept up with that change by sending a different representative. And they’re going to be happy with her.”