For months, the National Republican Campaign Committee has targeted western Minnesota DFL Rep. Collin Peterson for defeat.
The committee has made Peterson a top target in its digital offensive, and this week the campaign arm of the House Republicans added television ads to its arsenal.
"What happened to Collin Peterson?" the ad asks. "After 23 years in Washington, he's changed."
Republicans say they plan to spend $2.8 million on TV ads against Peterson in the nearly two months between now and Election Day.
Why the renewed focus? Numbers. Republican Mitt Romney pulled in 53 percent of the presidential vote in Peterson's 7th District in 2012. At the same time, 60 percent of the district voted for Peterson. The 7th is one of just a handful of congressional districts in the country in which the Republicans outnumber the Democrats, but sent a Democrat to Washington.
In early September, while campaigning in Willmar, Peterson's message was simple.
"The Congress needs people like me who will work on a bipartisan basis," he said. "We need more people like me, not less."
Peterson, who has been easily reelected since he was first elected his seat in 1990, is the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee and was a key player in navigating the farm bill through Congress. He said in his next term he'll continue to focus on farm issues and plans to work on a transportation funding bill.
• January 2014: Peterson played central role in writing compromise farm bill
Peterson receives high marks from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business, two groups that typically align themselves with Republicans. He is also quick to remind voters that he doesn't always vote for bills pushed by Democratic leaders — including the Affordable Care Act.
"When you see these commercials that say I vote with Nancy Pelosi and Obama 99 percent of the time," he said, "the one thing you can say is that would come as a big damn surprise to both of them."
Peterson also isn't bashful about voicing support for politically unpopular ideas. He is vocal about lifting the ban on earmarks, which would allow lawmakers to direct federal dollars to local districts.
"We did a lot of good stuff in my district with those earmarks," Peterson said. "Now we're in the position where we have to go back to lobby the bureaucrats to get the money that we gave them to get them to spend it in the right place. It doesn't make sense."
Peterson isn't shy about surveying the political landscape. He said President Obama is unpopular in his district, which could deter dejected Democrats from voting in November. He also said he's worried that the national political parties — represented by the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — will become too involved in the race.
"Neither one of them understands this district, and they can screw it up," he said. "But what am I going to do?"
Peterson says he isn't seeing any signs that he's vulnerable this year, despite the efforts by national Republican groups. His Republican opponent sees it differently.
"Collin Peterson has been there for 24 years," said state Sen. Torrey Westrom. "If he hasn't gotten it accomplished in 24 years, I don't think he's going to get it accomplished."
Westrom, of Elbow Lake, cites uncertainty over the Affordable Care Act and the economy as factors that will help him beat Peterson. Westrom said he hopes his 18 years in the Legislature and his life story — he grew up on a dairy farm and lost his eyesight in an accident at 14 — will help. Pointing to his white cane, Westrom evokes Teddy Roosevelt.
"If you remember nothing else," he said, "remember that I'm the guy who walks softly but carries a big stick."
Westrom said if he wins, he'd vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, would push to limit the size of the federal government and would champion agriculture.
"We would come up with solutions. That's what Congress needs to do, is come up with solutions," he said.
But one solution Westrom is less willing to talk about is Social Security. U.S. Census figures show that one in five residents of Minnesota's 7th Congressional District older than 65. A third are 55 and older. Westrom said changes need to be made to Social Security, but declined to offer specifics.
"We will look at the options that make sense, but the bottom line is it needs to preserve the program for future generations," he said.
Westrom said he's focused on winning this year, but there are some who say he'd stand a better chance if Peterson decides to retire in 2016. Peterson says he isn't ready to talk about retirement. He said he typically makes decisions about whether to end his political career in February of an election year. The voters, of course, may make that decision for him earlier.