7th District voters choosing between ag clout and President Trump

Two side by side portraits one of a woman and one of a man.
DFL U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson (left) and Republican challenger Michelle Fischbach.
Courtesy of campaign

Millions of dollars have been pouring into western Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District this year as Republicans try to unseat the longtime Democratic incumbent. 

Interest in the race reaches far beyond the sprawling 7th, which runs along most of the western third of Minnesota, from the Canadian border and Lake of the Woods County up north to McLeod and Sibley counties in the east, to Pipestone, Murray and Cottonwood in the south, and all the way to the North and South Dakota borders: Reported spending by outside groups is more than $10 million

The 7th has historically leaned Republican, and has turned a deeper shade of red in recent years — except on the Congressional level. Voters in the district have chosen Collin Peterson to represent them in Congress for 30 years — since 1991. 

But political pundits on the national level say incumbent Peterson is facing his toughest election ever — and he is counting on support from farmers in a district where agriculture is a major economic force. 

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

His challenger, Republican Michelle Fischbach, is a former state senator who also spent a year as lieutenant governor under former Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat. Fischbach is depending on strong support for President Donald Trump among voters in the 7th District to flip the congressional seat to the Republican party. 

Campaign ads in support of Fischbach make the connection plain: "President Donald Trump has given Michelle Fischbach his complete and total endorsement,” one ad declares, playing up her connection to the president and tying Peterson to some of the most liberal Democrats in Congress, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and others.

Peterson bristled at the connection — and the idea that he supports a liberal agenda..

"I do not support the agenda of Ilhan Omar and AOC,” Peterson, a member of the House’s centrist Blue Dog caucus, said in a recent interview. “Frankly, they are not Democrats, in my opinion. They are self-described socialists, and I've even said I think it's questionable whether they should be in our party." 

But Republicans are betting that labeling Peterson as a liberal can help them overcome his strong support from the ag industry. 

It’s an old tactic in the 7th District, said Minnesota State University Moorhead political scientist Barbara Headrick. She said the approach hasn't been effective in the past — but in this highly partisan election cycle, Republicans are trying to persuade voters that they can't trust Peterson — or anyone on the DFL side of the ticket.

"I think, at this point, that is simply trying to reinforce the negative attitudes toward Democrats in general, and trying to use that partisanship to get people to do straight-ticket voting," she said. 

Peterson has long depended on Republican farmers crossing the partisan divide to vote for him, because of his clout as chair of the House Agriculture Committee. 

That’s critical in a district where Trump received 61 percent of the vote in 2016. 

Peterson admitted that internal campaign polling shows the copious negative ads in the race are hurting him, but he still expects a lot of Republicans to split their ticket and vote for him. 

"We just did a poll not too long ago and we're up, and I am the most popular person in my district. More popular than Trump by quite a bit,” he said. “I don't know how many people in the past two weeks have said, 'Look, we're all for Trump, but we're for you.”

Despite all the partisan rhetoric in the race, it's hard to find much daylight between Peterson and Fischbach when it comes to specific issues. 

When pressed on the topic on which she most strongly disagrees with Peterson, Fischbach pointed to party leadership.

"I think the biggest one is [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and his support for the Democrats," she said. 

By the same token, Fischbach said there are no issues on which she disagrees with Trump — and she expects that support to carry her to victory next week. 

"President Trump won this district by 30 points, plus — and so I think there's strong support for President Trump, and I suspect it's going to be another very strong win in the 7th District for President Trump," Fischbach said.

Fischbach has raised significantly more money than Peterson’s Republican challengers in recent cycles. 

Headrick said 7th District voters have unquestionably grown more conservative over time —but Peterson has benefited from his role as ag committee chair, where agriculture and adjacent industries are a major economic force..  

"Peterson continues to be heavily backed by some of the most important economic movers in this part of the state," she said. "And so that continues to be a strength of his. And it's interesting: I have not seen the Republicans try to take that away. Instead, they are simply following the same tactic that they usually do against him, which is, 'Oh, he's just gone D.C. He's no longer one of us.'" 

Headrick said Peterson’s political future could well depend on whether that message resonates more deeply with voters this year, and Fischbach’s fortunes may ride on how well Trump does in the district.

Have questions leading up to the Election Day? #AskMPRNews. We want to hear your stories, too. #TellMPRNews what is motivating you to get out and vote this year.