It's 16 months before the next election, and Minnesota Republicans say they're mounting a renewed challenge to U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a DFLer who represents northwestern Minnesota's 7th Congressional District.
They're calling attention to remarks he made to a Virginia-based political Web site. Peterson was quoted saying one in four of his constituents are fringe-thinking conspiracy theorists.
Peterson is one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress -- and one of the safest. He won his last election by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.
But Republicans say Peterson's remarks have made him newly vulnerable.
Peterson recently told Politico.com that he didn't like to hold town hall meetings in his district because so many of his constituents hold fringe ideas, including the belief that the Bush administration played a secret role in the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Peterson's comments were part of a larger story on the disruptive effect of the "birther" movement, people who claim President Barack Obama wasn't born in the United States, and so doesn't meet the constitutional requirement to serve as president.
"Today's the start of a pretty serious campaign against Collin Peterson."
Republicans say Peterson is ignoring his mainstream constituents.
"My phone, and I'm sure the phones here at the party, have been literally ringing off the hook," said Michael Brodkorb, deputy chairman of the state Republican Party. "I think his remarks will provide an opportunity for a first-tier candidate to get in this race. I think today's the start of a pretty serious campaign against Collin Peterson, and I think the 7th CD just became a heck of a lot more competitive than it previously was."
Brodkorb announced today that his party is running a radio ad critical of Peterson's remarks, as well as his recent votes on the federal budget and climate change.
Peterson apologized on Monday for the remarks he made in the Politico article, and this afternoon he responded to the Republican challenge in a statement issued by his office.
"As for the Republican Party's new ad, I think they can say whatever they want. I'm guessing that my constituents are more interested in cutting the deficit and getting spending under control, and getting a health care bill that works for them and that we can afford," said Peterson.
Other Democrats are defending the 10-term incumbent. State DFL Party Chairman Brian Melendez is one of them.
"Collin Peterson engaged in a little bit of rhetorical exaggeration. He apologized for it," said Melendez. "It would be nice if other elected officials would just -- when they make a misstep, own up to it and apologize. I think people understand where he stands, and that he's with them."
Peterson is also one of the most powerful members of the House. He's a leading member of the "Blue Dog" coalition of conservative Democrats. He chairs the House Agriculture Committee, and brought the President Obama's effort to address climate change to a virtual halt this summer. He may also play a major role in financial reform regarding sophisticated financial instruments.
The Minnesota Republican Party is newly energized after the recent elections of Brodkorb and its new chairman Tony Sutton. They're clearly using Peterson's remarks to open political battles on new fronts.
Republicans lost the 7th District when Peterson defeated embattled incumbent Republican Arlan Stangeland in 1990. Brodkorb says he thinks Peterson is in trouble.
"I think Collin Peterson is going to find himself going forward in the eye of a pretty serious storm," said Brodkorb. "First of all, the activist base is pretty seriously energized because of his statement. I think a lot of candidates that we've not had in the past are going to look toward this race."
Political observers question how effective the Republican effort will be. In last year's election, Republican Michelle Bachmann made a remark on cable TV that sparked a nationwide controversy and pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into her opponent's campaign coffers.
But political science professor Barbara Headrick, who teaches at Minnesota State University in Moorhead, said she doesn't think Peterson will find himself in the same position.
"I think he could be if he was on TV as much as she is, but he just doesn't actually go on TV or radio all that often. He pretty much keeps his head down and does his job."
The Republican ads are scheduled to start tomorrow and run on more than a dozen radio stations in western Minnesota.