At Farmfest, Rep. Collin Peterson tells Republicans: I’m not going anywhere

MinnPost photo by Doug Grow
Rep. Collin Peterson’s popularity with his constituency was obvious as he held court Tuesday morning at a candidates’ forum at Farmfest.

Over the years, Republicans have made a handful of serious efforts to defeat Rep. Collin Peterson. But it appears this time around, the GOP is waving a big white flag over Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District. 

Yes, there are a couple of Republicans running against the 72-year-old Democrat, who first was elected in 1990. David Hughes, the GOP’s endorsed candidate who is proud to say he’s very conservative, and Amanda Lynn Hinson, who sounds a little Trumpish, first must face each other in next week’s primary before taking on Peterson. But whoever wins the primary will be pretty much left to fend for themselves. The Republican Party made beating Peterson a national cause two years ago. It succeeded only in making him mad.

Peterson, who in the past has mulled over retirement, laughed when he said that Republican tactics in 2014 made him so angry that he decided to keep running for a couple of more terms. And clearly, that’s just fine with people in the massive district.

Peterson’s popularity with his constituency was obvious as he held court Tuesday morning at a candidates’ forum at Farmfest. Peterson was sharing the stage with fellow Rep. Tim Walz, who represents Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, 6th District Rep. Tom Emmer, and a half dozen others who are vying for the seats of those three heavily favored incumbents.

Fewer farmers, fewer candidates

This is the part where we take a short digression to explain Farmfest, which has been held near Morgan, in southwestern Minnesota, for 40 years.

It’s basically a big trade show, with implement manufacturers and seed dealers showing off their wares. Typically, it’s a must-attend event for pols who have aspirations of higher office. The metro-area officials are usually easy to pick out. They’re the ones usually trying hard to look like farmers, even if they haven’t learned that farmers don’t have creases ironed into their brand new jeans.

Pols like to say they really enjoy Farmfest, usually as sweat is pouring down their faces. Yet this year a lot of them are skipping the event.

Minnesota Congressional candidates debate At Farm Fest, courtesy of the UpTake

For example, Rep. Rick Nolan and challenger Stewart Mills originally were scheduled to appear on Tuesday, but they bailed. And Wednesday’s schedule originally called for 3rd District incumbent Erik Paulsen and his DFL foe, Terri Bonoff, to appear, as well as the cluster of candidates for the 2nd Congressional District seat. That slate has been replaced by a bunch of state legislators.

Why the change for Wednesday? No specific reasons were given, but the last thing Farmfest wanted to do was provide a stage for one of the 2nd District Republicans, Matt Erickson, a gross clown.

Additionally, metro-area candidates had more productive things to do than spend a couple of hours driving to a farm show. In fact, one of the problems that kept coming up at Farmfest is a demographic one: There are simply fewer farmers than there once were. 

Agriculture is still a mighty industry in the state. But it’s an industry in which fewer people are needed. And in election years, pols go where the people are. 

To walk through the rows of machines, some costing more than $250,000, and hear that farm lands are valued at more than $7,000 an acre, is to understand that the romance a lot of politicians attach to family farms — dad, mom, the kids and little tractor — belongs in a museum exhibit.

Peterson playing the long game

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for politicians like Peterson. When it comes to ag policy, Peterson knows how ag and Washington work. And it was clear that the farmers who attended the forum understood that when it comes to policy, Peterson’s was the face to watch, the voice to listen to.

Peterson didn’t even have to say much. Rather, he’d nod when another pol made a comment he could agree with or sit back with just the hint of a smirk on his face when someone said something he deemed foolish.

Sometimes, though, Peterson found it necessary to make a correction in what he clearly considered faulty logic.

Rep. Tim Walz: "Let’s let science drive things."
MinnPost photo by Doug Grow
Rep. Tim Walz: “Let’s let science drive things.”

For example, Hinson, one of his opponents, complained about how much of the money in the current farm bill goes to nutrition — such things as food stamps — instead of going into ag commodity programs. (Farmers hate charity when it goes to food stamps. They love it when it goes to subsidize farmers.) 

Peterson’s other foe, Hughes, joined in with Hinson. “Get rid of the fraud, waste and abuse (in nutrition programs),’’ he said. “We should separate nutrition programs from commodities.’’

Peterson shook his head and explained the facts of life to those who would replace him. “Separation is a very bad idea,’’ he explained. “That was tried in 2013 and it killed the farm bill. It’s hard enough to pass a farm bill as it is. Here’s the thing: At the end of the day, urban members [in the House] are interested in the nutrition issues. Their support is needed.’’

The most interesting dynamic of this particular forum was the way Peterson continually patted Walz on the back. Both are on the ag committee in the House, and both come from farming backgrounds. (Both came to Farmfest wearing well-worn jeans.) It seemed that Peterson was letting Minnesotans know that if he ever does retire, Walz should be his successor as the authority on ag issues. 

Walz got off the most successful one-liner of the entire forum. The subject was GMOs and labeling — and how “science’’ has changed the way people farm. “Let’s let science drive things,” Walz said. It’s OK, he said, for Chipotle to advertise “ ‘we don’t use GMO products,’ but I’d rather see them advertise non-salmonella products.”

Meantime, Republican Jim Hagedorn, who is trying to unseat Walz, did his best to stir things up. He ranted about how Obamacare is destroying the family farm. And he really got fired up about the EPA. “There’s a brewing war against ag, just as there was against coal,” Hagedorn said in his most threatening voice. “EPA. You know that stands for Eviscerate Production Agriculture.”

That sort of rhetoric may play in presidential politics. But it landed with a thud at Farmfest.

Republican Jim Hagedorn ranted about how Obamacare is destroying the family farm
MinnPost photo by Doug Grow
Republican candidate Jim Hagedorn said Obamacare is destroying the family farm.

This is an industry that has an appreciation for pols who can dig deeply into the complexities of a farm bill and bring home the bacon. Over the years, it’s believed Peterson has brought back nearly $1 billion to his district.

And while there are plenty of Republicans eager to see him gone, for now it appears they’re going to let nature take its course.

But Peterson had some bad news for 7th District Republicans. Nature may take its time.  “For those trying to get rid of me,’’ he said. “My dad’s 96 and he’s still out there and walking the ditches.’’

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