As farm bill enters the final stretch, Collin Peterson mulls his political future

Collin Peterson
Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, speaks at a rally in front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, September 12, 2012 for a new farm bill.
MPR Photo/Brett Neely

As Republicans look at the Minnesota election map this year, many believe their best chance of picking up a congressional seat is the 7th District, which covers the western half of the state and runs from the Canadian border almost all the way to Iowa.

Voters in the conservative region have reliably selected Republican presidential candidates for years. But since 1991, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a gun-owning, guitar-playing conservative Democrat, has represented the district in the U.S. House. Now the state's longest serving member of Congress, Peterson hasn't yet announced whether he will run for re-election this year.

"I'm waiting until we get the farm bill done, I've got a lot of other things on my mind," said Peterson in response to a question from MPR News about his political future.

Peterson was the architect of the 2008 farm bill and has been closely involved in the drafting of the current bill, which could be finished by February though it has been long delayed by internal Republican politics.

In his 23 years in the House, Peterson has fashioned a reputation as a straight-talking dealmaker and vote counter who has used his perch as the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee to continue generous federal support his district's corn and sugar beet growers.

That reputation was on display last week as he updated reporters about prospects for the farm bill. Peterson has been locked in a dispute with House Speaker John Boehner over dairy policy that Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma has been mediating.

Dispute between Peterson and Boehner part of latest farm bill snag

"Well, what [Lucas is] trying to do is come up with something that makes me mad and makes Boehner mad and makes both of us equally mad," Peterson said. "Well, that may be a solution. I don't know. I said, I don't have a problem with that as long as it works. If it works, fine."

Republicans are hoping that stronger candidates and hopes of a backlash against the Affordable Care Act will be enough to unseat Peterson should he run again.

National Republicans helped recruit state Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, to take on Peterson in the fall and have been talking up his prospects to reporters. Westrom didn't respond to a request for an interview. Montevideo businessman Scott van Binsbergen also is weighing a run against Peterson.

Craig Bishop, chairman of the 7th District Republicans, argued that Peterson could be vulnerable in the fall.

"One thing about his record is he waffled on Obamacare," Bishop said. "We all know how important that issue is going to be coming up in November 2014."

Peterson voted against the Affordable Care in 2010. However, he also opposed later Republican attempts to dismantle the law.

Peterson's voting record has made it hard for Republicans to easily paint him as an out of touch liberal in a conservative district. He frequently breaks with the Democrats on issues such as abortion, gun control and the environment.

While he's not a reliable vote for Democrats or Republicans, Peterson has developed strong relationships with members on both sides of the aisle, even going so far as to form a band, the Second Amendments, made up of lawmakers from both parties.

Despite winning re-election comfortably for the past 20 years, Peterson finds himself confronted an unfavorable trend in American politics. Before the 1990s, it was common for voters for vote for one party's candidate at the presidential level and another party's candidate for congressional seats.

That's become increasingly rare. Peterson is now one of just nine Democrats in the House to represent a district carried by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. Romney won nearly 54 percent of the vote compared to 44 percent carried by President Obama.

"The voters are more ideologically cohesive, the parties are more ideologically cohesive," University of Virginia Center for Politics analyst Kyle Kondik said.

The growing polarization of the electorate has affected Peterson's closest political allies in the House, the group of conservative Democrats known as the Blue Dog Coalition that Peterson is a founding member of. They took that name after one of them said they were tired of being choked blue by liberals.

As recently as 2010, there were 54 Blue Dogs in the House. These days, there are fewer than 20 and several have announced plans to retire.

"The Blue Dog kennel has been depleted. It's almost wiped out," said former U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm of Texas, another founding Blue Dog member.

Stenholm said Peterson was a "perfect example" of a Blue Dog lawmaker.

"[He] looks at the issue, differs with his party when he has to, supports his party but represents his district," Stenholm said.

Peterson's many years atop the House Agriculture Committee have given him a deep well of financial supporters to draw upon in case of a tough election.

"That's one of the things that makes Collin a very formidable opponent is his ties with the ag community," said Bishop, chairman of the 7th District Republicans.

Republican operatives have been spreading rumors that Peterson may follow some of his fellow Blue Dogs into retirement next year. While Peterson was noncommittal when asked recently, he was more irritated by attempts to push him towards the door last June, after Republicans put an anti-Peterson sign on a truck and drove it through his home town of Detroit Lakes.

"I went from neutral to running again to 90 percent just because of this stupid stuff they're doing," Peterson said. "You can't let these people be in charge of anything in my opinion."

In another sign Peterson is angling for a 13th term, a number of high ranking Democrats held a fundraiser for Peterson's campaign in November.

If he runs again, Peterson's constituents will have to decide this November whether they want a deal-maker who's determined to avoid conventional political labels or a newer, more conservative voice in Congress.

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