WASHINGTON – As U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson is mired in negotiations over the next farm bill, his Republican opponent in Minnesota is working to unseat the longtime Democrat in a congressional district that overwhelmingly supported President Donald Trump.
Trump himself weighed in last weekend with a tweet in support of Republican Dave Hughes. It was a welcome bit of attention for Peterson's challenger in a race that has not drawn the same emphasis from national Republicans who have focused on flipping Trump-backing districts in southern and northeastern Minnesota from Democrat to Republican.
"So far it's kind of a sleeper race," said Hughes, a 21-year U.S. Air Force veteran.
Hughes lost to Peterson by 5 percentage points in 2016, with little name recognition and hardly any money, as voters in the district backed Trump by 31 percentage points. Now Hughes is hopeful he can finally convince constituents that Peterson is out of touch with the rural, western Minnesota district that sprawls from Canada, along the North and South Dakota borders and nearly down to Iowa.
"He's ridden this ostensible wave of maverick-ism, if I can make up a word, but I think that's a lot of sound and fury and not much substance," said Hughes, who lives in Karlstad with his wife, Amanda, and their seven children.
Peterson is best known for being the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, its former chairman and the longest-serving member on the panel. He's among a small group of federal lawmakers trying to negotiate a final five-year farm bill by Sept. 30, at a time when many farmers are reeling from low commodity prices and a trade war.
"It takes so long to get there," Peterson said of his leadership post. "It is not easy to climb the ladder and get to this position, and farmers understand that."
The committee's Republican chairman, Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, pushed legislation that would have expanded the number of food stamp recipients who are required to work in order to receive the benefit. Democrats, and Republicans in the U.S. Senate, opposed that move. Peterson pulled out of negotiations at the request of fellow Democrats on the committee and went months without speaking to Conaway. Talks are under way again, but Peterson said they're moving slowly because of spending disputes between Conaway and the Senate Democrats in the negotiating group.
Peterson was elected in 1990 and was a founding member of the "Blue Dog" coalition of conservative Democrats. He's embraced gun ownership rights and received contributions from the National Rifle Association; Peterson also voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2010, though more recently he has sided with his party in opposing GOP attempts to repeal the law.
Over his career, Peterson repeatedly defeated Republican opponents by double-digit margins. In 2014, Republicans named Peterson a top target, and outside groups spent millions to help state Sen. Torrey Westrom unseat him, only to see Westrom lose by 8 percentage points. Hughes spent just $19,564 on the last campaign, compared with Peterson's $682,928. This time around, Hughes has raised $112,433. He's got $6,328 in cash on hand, while Peterson has almost $1.3 million.
Hughes said he's doing more expansive outreach than before, participating in 101 parades this summer and distributing 4,000 yard signs.
Republican state Rep. Tim Miller, of Prinsburg, launched a campaign last year to run against Peterson in 2018, then dropped out a few months later. Miller said he believes the race is winnable for the right candidate with the right resources, but still difficult.
"Collin Peterson has not only been an incumbent for a long time, but he's been very artful in positioning himself with agriculture," Miller said. He added that he's met people in the agricultural community who say, "We don't want to take our chances — we need to make sure that Collin's there to get the farm bill through."
Hughes voiced certainty that voters in the district are still enthusiastic about Trump, despite the controversy over his tariffs. Farmers understand that the pain will be short-term, Hughes said.
"His America first agenda is a solid agenda that I think people of all political stripes can get behind," said Hughes.
Hughes reached out to the White House to solicit the Twitter endorsement.
"He will help us accomplish our America First policies, is strong on Crime, the Border, our 2nd [Amendment], Trade, Military and Vets. Running against Pelosi Liberal Puppet Petterson [sic]. Dave has my Total Endorsement!" Trump tweeted on Sept. 8.
"I guess you can make stuff up, apparently," Peterson said of the president's Pelosi comparison.
Peterson, among the more conservative Democrats in the House, noted a Georgetown University study giving him the highest bipartisan legislation score in 2017.
Hughes teaches U.S. Customs and Border Protection aircrews how to fly drones to monitor the northern and southern borders. Immigration is one of the district's biggest issues, Hughes believes, and he wants to see a wall built.
Peterson doesn't think Trump's strong showing in 2016 will put his re-election at risk.
"Trump's not on the ballot," he said.