In first debate, Peterson, Westrom battle over health care

Seventh district debate
Moderator Matt Olien (left), Republican candidate Torrey Westrom (center) and Democratic incumbent Collin Peterson prepare for the debate at Prairie Public Television in Fargo, N.D., October 22, 2014.
Dave Arntson / For MPR News

In their first debate before the Nov. 4 election, Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson and his Republican challenger, state Sen. Torrey Westrom, repeatedly clashed over health care.

But not unlike other Republican candidates across the nation, Westrom, of Elbow Lake, repeatedly tried to link his opponent to President Barack Obama, whom he attacked during the 30-minute debate.

"On Congressman Peterson's watch we have seen our national debt skyrocket, Obamacare passed by Democrat leadership, the Keystone pipeline still not built because of President Obama's administration," Westrom said.

Throughout the debate in Fargo, Peterson emphasized his independence. He said he voted against the Affordable Care Act and supports the Keystone pipeline project.

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Peterson also said he has worked with Republicans in Congress. He touted his work on the farm bill, bringing federal aid to rural hospitals and funding outpatient veterans' facilities in the 7th District.

The full debate will air at 8 p.m. Friday on Prairie Public Television.

U.S. Representative Collin Peterson
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson defended his record during the debate.
Dave Arntson / For MPR News

First elected to the U.S. House in 1990, Peterson claimed to be one of the most independent members of Congress.

"I'm the third most likely guy to vote against his party in either party in the whole United States Congress," Peterson said. "So, I don't know how you can do any better than that."

But Peterson is in his most competitive race in years against Westrom, who has served in the state legislature since 1996 and is making his first run for Congress.

The candidates agreed on some things. Both support the farm bill, a critical piece of legislation for the western Minnesota district where the economy depends heavily on agriculture.

Peterson and Westrom both decried negative advertising by national groups who are pouring millions of dollars into the race.

National Republican Congressional Committee ads criticize Peterson for travel reimbursement he gets for flying his airplane around the district.

"I don't like the fact that you've got outside people coming in here bringing in money that nobody knows where it comes from," Peterson said. "It just feels like the outside has almost taken over this race in this district. You know, what's being done to me, I'm being attacked for doing my job."

Republican challenger Torrey Westrom
Republican challenger Torrey Westrom accused incumbent Collin Peterson (D) of working too closely with President Obama and Rep. Nancy Pelosi.
Dave Arntson / For MPR News

Westrom claimed ads paid for by national Democratic groups are distorting his legislative record.

"I am no fan of these negative ads either," he said. "The way they are distorting my record and background — I don't support that either. It's troubling to see this kind of outside money trying to attack and negatively portray candidates."

Perhaps the sharpest exchange of the debate came when the candidates discussed health care. Westrom said the Affordable Care Act raises the cost of health care for individuals and small businesses in the 7th District.

He criticized Peterson for not voting to repeal the legislation.

"You mentioned you voted against it, that was four years ago," Westrom said. "You multiple times voted to keep it the law of the land."

Peterson said the constant and repetitive attempts by Republicans to repeal the health care law were "a 100 percent repeal." He asked Westrom what he would do about the law's popular provisions, such as one that ensures that people with pre-existing conditions cannot lose their insurance.

"You'd work bipartisanly, work on pre-existing conditions, students that are up to 26," Westrom said.

"Then why don't you work bipartisanly to fix the problems and leave the good parts in place?" Peterson asked.

Westrom said that could be done.

The two candidates meet again Thursday for a debate at Pioneer Public Television in Appleton, Minnesota.