WILLMAR, Minn. – Truck driver Mike Thompson is in an anti-incumbent mood. He voted for President Donald Trump for president, and now he wants to see U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, the longtime Democratic congressman for western Minnesota, voted out of office.
“I want to drain the swamp,” Thompson said Friday as he ate lunch at Jake’s Pizza in downtown Willmar.
Elected to Congress in 1990, Peterson has held on in the largely rural Seventh Congressional District even as its voters have moved toward Republicans in other state, local and national races. His Republican challenger, Dave Hughes, is hoping to ride a pro-Trump wave in this rematch with Peterson, after losing to him by 5 percentage points in 2016 — even as Trump won the district by nearly 31 percentage points.
The race has not drawn the same national interest or financial resources as four other Minnesota House races this year: Republicans are trying to flip two other more rural, Trump-backing districts, while Democrats seek to unseat Republican incumbents in two mostly suburban districts. But this week, RealClearPolitics, which ranks House races around the country, shifted its designation of the Seventh from “leans Democrat” to “toss-up.”
In an interview Friday, Peterson disputed that assessment, and a campaign aide noted that other political handicappers continue to favor Peterson.
“I would say the number one issue right now is people are sick and tired of all the negativity — they are sick and tired of the campaign and they want it over with,” said Peterson, adding that he often hears from voters who praise him for avoiding partisanship.
A one-time chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Peterson is known for more conservative views on issues like gun control. He bucked his party in a vote against the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
But Hughes is trying to make the case that a Republican representative could accomplish far more in Washington than a Democrat who seems increasingly out of step with the liberal wing of his party.
“Are you guys ready for Collin Peterson to retire?” Hughes called out to a gathering of several dozen cheering Republicans in a shopping market parking lot in Hutchinson on Friday afternoon. Republican U.S. Senate candidate Karin Housley’s campaign tour bus had just pulled up for a quick rally.
Charles O. Miller, a retiree and a moderate Republican, said he does not support Trump and won’t be voting for Hughes. He said he believes Hughes’ agenda is too conservative, particularly on immigration, and he backs Peterson.
“I like Collin … he’s been in too long and we do need a fresh pair of eyes, but Dave is not it,” said Miller, as he hopped on his bike in Willmar.
In northeastern Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District, where Trump won by 15 percentage points, Republicans see a stronger chance of taking retiring Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan’s seat. But Peterson said that district’s mining economy has made voters more amenable to Trump’s tariffs, while the more heavily agricultural community in his own district opposes them.
“You talk to farmers and they’ll tell you they are a lot more comfortable when I’m there at the table, because they know their interests are being represented. … I’ve got a lot of farmers that are Republicans that are 100 percent behind me,” Peterson said.
On Friday, Peterson’s congressional office highlighted his working relationship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and trumpeted his work to have the federal government resume payments for Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts. Under the program, farmers agree to idle environmentally sensitive land in exchange for rental payments.
“I’m definitely for Collin Peterson because he works with both sides of the aisle and I seriously believe that he’s sincere and he tries to help everybody,” said Elaine Sportel, a retiree who voted for Trump and is married to a farmer, as she sat at the Goodness Coffee House.
State Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, said that both Hughes and Peterson are emphasizing farming issues. He said voters should instead “really think through who they want as speaker of the House at the federal level. A vote for Collin is a vote for Nancy Pelosi, and she does not have the best perspective and support for issues of the rural farming community of the Seventh District.”
Before the political rally, Hughes noted that Peterson had voted against the Republican tax cuts in December, and was involved in negotiations over a farm bill that has been stalled for months in Congress.
“Folks can vote for Dave Hughes, who will work with the president … or vote for Collin Peterson, who by himself may not be everything that the Democrats represent, but you empower his party to do the things they want to do,” Hughes said. “They want to impeach the president, they want to reverse the tax cuts, they want open borders.”