Collin Peterson defeat brings 30 years as a self-styled congressional maverick to a close

House Agriculture Committee
Then-House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking member Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., hold a hearing to question the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's administrator about the impact of the agency's regulation on agriculture during a hearing in Washington, D.C. in 2011.
Jonathan Ernst | Getty Images file 2011

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson lost his seat in western Minnesota's sprawling 7th Congressional District Tuesday to former lieutenant governor and state senator, Republican Michelle Fischbach.  

Peterson spent 30 years in Congress, a self-styled maverick, founding member of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats and current chair of the House Agriculture Committee.

He won his seat in 1990, unseating incumbent Republican Rep. Arlan Stangeland after three earlier attempts. And he narrowly won against a strong challenger the next two elections.

In 1994, Peterson helped found the conservative Blue Dog Democrats caucus. And in 1996,  he ran a low-budget, low-key race — and started winning by wider margins, a trend that continued for more than a decade. His preferred style of campaigning has been to attend dozens of small-town parades and county fairs.  

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From the start, Peterson was clear about his political philosophy of straddling the ideological fence between Democrats and Republicans. 

"If it's an idea that I think makes sense for the country, makes sense for my district, I'll support it,” he said during the 1996 election.

Rep. Collin Peterson, left, and Rep. Tom Emmer tell jokes
Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, left, and Republican Rep. Tom Emmer tell jokes at each other's expense during a bipartisan town hall at the American Legion in Melrose in February 2019. Emmer referred to Peterson as "Cranky Collin."
Evan Frost | MPR News 2019

“And I've taken flak for that. But I think that's what people want. I think most people in my district are independent and don't identify with a party and that's I think part of the reason why I'm strong in this election.”

By 2014, the 7th District was changing, becoming more red, as voters chose Republicans up and down the ballot. But Peterson's philosophy remained the same. 

"I just do what I think is right for my district and I don't get too hung up on the partisanship,” he told reporters on election day that year. “I try to work with whoever makes sense, so I end up making the Democrats mad half the time and the Republicans mad half the time, and people seem to like that."

Last year, Peterson sharply diverged from Democrats when he voted against impeaching President Trump, a vote he said his constituents supported.  

"What I've said all along is that you can't do this [impeach the president] with one party. It's not smart and it's not going to work,” he said. “I think if this is handled incorrectly, it will reelect Trump."   

Over the years, Peterson and his 7th District Republican challengers have often agreed on issues.  Even this year, it was hard to find daylight between the incumbent and his challenger, Michelle Fischbach. They expressed similar positions on issues including ag policy, gun rights and Minnesota’s response to COVID-19.

Representing the ag-focused 7th

Peterson has played a key role in writing a decade's worth of Farm Bill legislation, and is now serving his second term as chair of the House Agriculture Committee.   

He's been closely aligned with Minnesota farmers, protecting federal farm programs for sectors like the sugarbeet industry. He was widely supported by farm groups across the country, including cotton and peanut farmers from Georgia and Alabama who came to the 7th district this fall to campaign with Peterson.

Congressman Collin Peterson
Rep. Collin Peterson addresses the media after a public forum in Willmar to discuss the response to the state's avian flu outbreak in 2015.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News 2015

Peterson didn't respond to an interview request after Election Day, but that's not unusual.

He has often deflected reporters' requests for day-after-the election interviews. 

"I've gotta go check my deer cameras because deer season starts on Saturday,” he told reporters in 2014, when asked about whether he’d be available for interviews after the results came in. “So I'm going to get my deer camp organized.”

Peterson’s staffers often bemoaned the fact there was an official schedule for the congressman —  and then there was Collin's schedule, which included meetings with constituents that even his staff didn't know about. 

And he has  routinely piloted his single-engine airplane to events across the 7th District, which covers much of the western third of the state, from the Canadian border and Lake of the Woods County in the north to McLeod and Sibley counties to the east, to Pipestone, Murray and Cottonwood in the south and west to the Dakotas.

He complained in a 2006 interview that he was being pressured to let consultants run his campaigns. 

7th District U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson listens to Tom Ebacher
Rep. Collin Peterson listens to Tom Ebacher of Kensington, Minn., at a town hall on health care in Moorhead in 2017.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2017

"I just don’t see that it’s necessary,” he said. “I've been doing this long enough, I can tell by going around the district whether people are happy or not." 

This election, not enough voters were happy to return Peterson to a 16th term in Congress.

Peterson’s office issued a brief statement on Wednesday morning. 

"I'd like to thank the people of the 7th District for their support over the years. Serving them in Washington, D.C. has been a great honor, and I respect their decision to move in a different direction. We ran a strong and positive campaign, but with the President winning this district by 30 points again, and the millions in outside money that was spent to attack me, the partisan tilt of this district was just too much to overcome."

The final day of the 116th legislative session is Jan. 3, 2021.