Challengers say sights are set on long shots worth taking

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW and LARRY OAKES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 26, 2008 - 8:27 PM

Democrats Collin Peterson and James Oberstar are fixtures in Minnesota's congressional delegation, each holding an influential leadership position on a committee of significance for his district. In this year's election

Democrats Collin Peterson and James Oberstar are fixtures in Minnesota's congressional delegation, each holding an influential leadership position on a committee of significance for his district. In this year's election. They face challengers who are running determined, if against-the-odds campaigns. A look at the races in the Seventh and Eighth Districts.

THE SEVENTH: Peterson vs. Menze

For the past 18 years, Collin Peterson has owned Minnesota's Seventh District seat.

Barring an upset next month, the 64-year-old incumbent from Detroit Lakes will likely make it 20.

Peterson, a fiscally conservative Democrat in a district that leans slightly Republican, is being challenged by GOP candidate Glen Menze, 49, a farmer, accountant and business consultant from Starbuck, who ran against Peterson in 2000 and lost by more than a 2-1 ratio.

It's a "David and Goliath" rematch, Menze said, but one he believes is worth waging.

"You never give up, because the issues are just that important," said Menze, who considers himself a "populist conservative."

In a year of domestic turmoil -- from division over the Iraq war to concerns about health care and gas prices -- both men agree that the nation's economic crisis is foremost on voters' minds.

Both oppose the government's $700 billion rescue bill, a position that seems to play well in the largely rural and agricultural district that stretches from southwestern Minnesota to the Canadian border.

"I almost felt like they were stampeding us into something," Peterson said. "I tell you what, I have a very hard time turning over this thing to the people who caused this in the first place."

Menze feels the same. "It's like taking a shotgun approach to settle the market," he said, adding that voter frustration over the bailout may be strong enough to bring sweeping change to Washington.

"The district isn't real quick on change. But when they decide to change, they change fast," he said. "This may be what it takes to get people to say 'We need something different.' "

Peterson, meanwhile, said he's comfortable standing behind his record. In 2006, he became chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and was instrumental in the passage of a five-year farm bill, which included continued subsidies for farmers and money to pay for nutrition and environmental programs.

Peterson said at the time that the subsidy portion of the bill was an important "safety net" for farmers.

"I haven't changed," he said. "I think that's one of the reasons I get the support I do up here. People know who I am and what I stand for."

THE EIGHTH: Oberstar vs. Cummins

Democratic Rep. James Oberstar is welded so tightly into his seat that challengers are run mainly to force him to spend more on his campaign and less helping other Democrats.

Only once in a state-record 16 reelections has he garnered less than 60 percent, in 1992. Two years ago, his best-known challenger ever, former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams, campaigned aggressively against Oberstar but got only 34 percent of the vote.

All the same, Republican candidate Michael Cummins of Brook Park professes having hope of beating Oberstar.

"If I didn't, I wouldn't have given up a summer of fishing," said Cummins, a real estate developer and construction project manager. "People are tired of the status quo in Washington, and there's going to be a point where that's going to catch up."

In a district that tends toward conservatism on social issues but is more liberal on economic matters, both men oppose abortion rights and gun control. Oberstar voted for the economic bailout bill, saying that if Congress didn't act, "we'd have a crisis that would exceed that of 1929." Cummins says he would have voted against it because "it wasn't about bailing out Wall Street, but [rather] to cover up the incompetence of those who are in charge."

Cummins says that to combat illegal immigration, he would "eliminate the automatic citizenship for those [children of illegals] who are born in the country." He said he's "pro-drilling" for more oil and would support more nuclear power plants and tax incentives for people who buy high-mileage vehicles.

Last year Oberstar became chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, a platform he has used to secure funds to help rebuild the 35W bridge, pass a $23 billion water resources bill with $97 million in infrastructure projects for Minnesota, and steer funds toward rebuilding passenger rail service in the United States, including a high-speed line between Minneapolis and Duluth.

Contributions are flowing toward Oberstar's power. His campaign had reported raising more than $1.6 million through Aug. 20, while Cummins' campaign, which he says won't take PAC or other special interest money, reported raising $7,079.

When asked why he should be returned to Congress yet again, Oberstar responded: "The chairmanship," and what it can continue to do for Minnesota. "I'm excited," he said, "about the prospect of what we can do with a Democratic president and gains in the Senate and House."

Says Cummins: "He's the biggest pork dealer in Washington. That's one of the reasons Congress has such a low approval rating. It's time for a change."


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