PoliGraph: Peterson’s planes, trains and automobiles

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In the vast 7

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Congressional District, it can take hours to get from one place to the next.

That’s why DFL Rep. Collin Peterson has long defended his use of an airplane to get around.

But Peterson’s preferred modes of transportation are a sore spot with the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is targeting Peterson’s taxpayer reimbursed cars and mileage in its latest six-figure ad buy.

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“It was bad enough when Peterson charged taxpayers for one leased car. Now he has two. Minnesota Senators don’t even have two. Worse? We also reimburse Peterson for gas and mileage – more than double any other Minnesota congressman.”

The ad is essentially correct, but Peterson argues he has unusual circumstances.

The Evidence

The NRCC has been honing a single talking point about Peterson for months: the group argues that Peterson, who has served in Congress for more than 20 years, is out of touch with his district. The group is working to help state Sen. Torrey Westrom defeat Peterson in November.

So this ad, which opens with a picture of a much younger Peterson, is meant to portray the long-serving representative as living high-on-the-hog off taxpayer dollars.

Senators aren’t allowed to pay for rental cars with taxpayer dollars, but U.S. House members are and Peterson is among them.

Back in 2001, Peterson’s office leased one car. But as the district got bigger, Peterson said he decided to rent two vehicles for staffers whose jobs required traveling long distances.  That way, they don't put wear and tear on their own cars.

Democrats like the rental car talking point, too. In 2011, when Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack was running for reelection in the 8

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Congressional District, the Democratic House Majority PAC ran an ad targeting Cravaack for renting an SUV.

The reason Peterson’s personal mileage reimbursements are so high is because he often flies his airplane around the district to save time. Last year, Peterson was reimbursed for more than $15,000 in personal mileage, according to finance reports. That’s much higher than other members of the Minnesota delegation, though some members may account for transportation charges differently – for instance, by reimbursing a staffer who drives them around their district.

Peterson argued that the money he spends on transportation reflects the size of his district, and that other members representing large areas face the same issue. For instance, GOP Rep. Kristi Noem of South Dakota was reimbursed for more than $5,200 for transportation in the first quarter of 2013.

For his part, Peterson said the NRCC’s ad misrepresents what he’s trying to do, which is visit as many constituents are possible.

“I don’t know how I’d cover the district without that airplane,” Peterson said. “[The ad] makes it look like we’re up to something. They’re attacking us for doing our job.”

The Verdict

Peterson’s travel expenses are high, and the numbers prove that.

But the ad needs some context: unlike most other members of the Minnesota delegation, Peterson has a lot of ground to cover to visit constituents.

And as to whether Peterson’s travel costs show he is out of the touch with his district, that's for the voters in the 7

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to decide.