Dying breed? 'Blue Dog' Peterson fired up to run

Congressman Collin Peterson
Congressman Collin Peterson addressed the media after a public forum was held to discuss the response to the state's outbreak of avian flu in Willmar, Minn.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Lots of rural Democrats walked the Capitol halls when U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson arrived in 1991. Like Peterson, many proudly counted themselves as pro-farm conservatives.

Most are gone now, beaten or retired during the past 20 years as the nation's politics became fractured along party lines. Peterson acknowledges he's one of the last of his breed. But he says he's not going anywhere.

Even after a years-long battle to pass a farm bill and a tough re-election race last fall, he says he's energized to keep his job in Minnesota's sprawling and increasingly Republican 7th District — the most Republican district in the nation to elect a Democrat.

Bob Sonstegard showed a photo of his farm.
Bob Sonstegard, middle, showed Congressman Collin Peterson, left, a picture of their farm from above. Peterson said that the Sonstegards lost 3.7 million chickens due to the avian flu on their farm in Iowa.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

While he's left himself an out, Peterson has held fundraisers and stayed active in agricultural issues, including the avian flu outbreak that's struck the state. "I'm running until I'm not," he said in a recent interview. "Right now, I'm running."

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Peterson is one of only five Democrats representing a House district carried by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. He's the Democrat least likely to vote with the rest of his party, according to analyses of his voting behavior.

Those divisions have turned Congress into a more ideological place and made Peterson's job of corralling together different interests around agriculture more challenging.

"A lot of these conservatives that have been elected in the House come from rural farm districts and they aren't necessarily supporting farm programs," he said. "That's a problem."

To the western Minnesota farmers he represents, Peterson is a very good friend in a very high place — the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. His mastery of complex agricultural policy has helped ensure his political longevity.

Twenty percent of the Republicans in the district are farmers, he said. "They're going to vote for me come hell or high water."

Peterson, though, acknowledges that he's increasingly out of step with his party.

Back in the early 1990s, it was still relatively common to find conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans in Congress. The Democrats called themselves Blue Dogs, a partial nod to the old southern Democrat adage that they'd vote for a yellow dog before a Republican.

"When I came here, there were 85 pro-gun Democrats," Peterson said. "Now there's hardly any. Some people say I should write a book and the title would be, 'The Last Blue Dog.' "

Even though he often votes with them, Republicans say they will aggressively try to defeat Peterson next year.

U.S. Representative Collin Peterson
U.S. Representative Collin Peterson (D) defended his record during Wednesday's 7th congressional district debate with Republican challenger Torrey Westrom at Prairie Public Television in Fargo, N.D.
Dave Arntson for MPR News 2014

State Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, came within eight points of ousting Peterson last fall but hasn't announced his plans yet for 2016. While the $6 million that Republicans and their allies spent against Peterson didn't do the job last time, National Republican Campaign Committee spokesman Zach Hunter says the group has no plans to let up on Peterson.

"Sometimes it's not a matter of 18 months of driving a message home," he said. "Sometimes it takes longer than that to really penetrate."

Peterson is quick to point out that Republicans now have plenty of members to defend who represent Democratic-leaning districts and that he's not so sure they'll have the resources to go after him in a presidential year.

"I think when it comes down to the end, they're going to have their hands full taking care of their vulnerable members and they're going to forget about people like me, that's what I think."

Minnesota U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a fellow House Democrat, says having to fight hard for re-election seems to have charged up Peterson.

"If anything, Collin's been more engaged than I've ever seen him," Walz said.

Collin Peterson
Congressman Peterson toured an Anheuser Busch malt plant in Moorhead, Minn. last fall.
Brett Neely | MPR News 2014

Peterson has reacted to the polarization in Congress by moving to the middle in recent years, he added. "As things get more extreme, he finds the need to be more the moderate or the contrarian voice."

Peterson's district, however is on borrowed time for the Democratic Party which makes his seat one of the most valuable seats for his party in the House, said David Wasserman follows House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

"You could make the case that Collin Peterson hasn't moved in terms of his politics so much as the Democratic caucus in the House has moved," he said.

Peterson says Republicans have often suggested he would find a home in their party. He says he has the same response every time.

"I've learned how to deal with the left wing in my party and they've finally gotten used to me," Peterson said, adding that he then tells his Republican friends, "At this time in my career, I do not want to spend any time learning how to deal with the right wing in your party.

"They say, 'Oh, we get that.'"