WASHINGTON – Judy Flicker led a small group of activists from the western Minnesota town of Morris last week to deliver a message that U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson should support the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
"There has to be a point where we can't let the president continue to do things that are wrong with impunity," said Flicker, a retired early childhood educator.
The reply from a member of Peterson's staff in Willmar, she said, was that the congressman was being careful with his public statements. "It's frustrating," Flicker said of Peterson, one of a handful of centrist Democrats in Congress to withhold support for the impeachment push now rocking the Trump administration. Still, Flicker said she understands Peterson's precarious spot in a constitutional and political showdown that could cast a long shadow up and down ballots in 2020 all over the nation.
Peterson's survival next year depends on holding a House district that supported Trump by huge numbers in 2016. By the end of last week, he was one of just 13 House Democrats publicly against an impeachment inquiry that has been picking up momentum. Eleven are, like Peterson, from districts Trump carried.
With Trump under fire for allegedly trying to induce the Ukrainian government to dig up dirt against former Vice President Joe Biden, one of the leading Democratic challengers, Peterson has not defended the president's actions. But he has called the impeachment process futile, unnecessarily divisive and a bad use of Congress' time.
How that plays in a rural conservative district will say a lot about whether Democrats can retain any foothold in less populated parts of the country, where Trump remains popular.
Western Minnesota's Seventh Congressional District backed Trump over Hillary Clinton by 31 points in the last presidential election. No House Democrat nationwide represents a district with a wider Trump margin. It was the Republican's biggest percentage of all eight Minnesota districts, higher even than in Rep. Tom Emmer's Sixth District.
Peterson's winning margins have shrunk the last few elections: from 26% in 2012 to 4% last year.
Former Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach, a Republican vying to challenge Peterson next year, calls Peterson's anti-impeachment stance "political expedience."
"He still voted for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker. And that empowers her to pursue this baseless and futile impeachment," said Fischbach, who's been lining up establishment Republican backing.
The political jockeying intensified Friday when Democrats voted unanimously to table a GOP resolution disapproving of Pelosi's impeachment inquiry. Though it was a procedural vote that wouldn't have ended the inquiry, Fischbach characterized it as sign of Peterson's "support" for impeachment. Her campaign attacked him in a news release, though all the anti-impeachment Democrats had opposed the GOP gambit.
Fischbach's move underscored how next year's race could test the GOP's theory that an impeachment drive will rally Trump's base. Peterson's deeply red district offers a prime spot to harness that energy, if it materializes.
New revelations in a White House whistleblower complaint released at the end of last week all but ensure a politically fraught impeachment debate will tumble into 2020. Trump's re-election campaign is already directing resources into Minnesota aimed at driving up the vote in Republican-leaning areas next year. Peterson's main bulwark: He's a leading player on federal agriculture policy, with one of the most conservative voting records of all Democrats in Washington.
Adding to the uncertainty, Peterson has yet to commit to another re-election bid. He has said previously that he won't publicly reveal his 2020 plans until January. He declined an interview request for this story, relying instead on a public statement opposing impeachment.
"If anyone thinks a partisan impeachment process would constrain President Trump, they are fooling themselves," his statement read. He predicted "a failed process that will end up even further dividing our country and weakening our ability to act together on issues."
Longtime allies still expect Peterson, 75, to make a bid for a 16th term. The Democratic takeover of the House this year restored Peterson to the chairmanship of the House Agriculture Committee, which he previously led from 2007 to 2010.
"He's certainly a champion for agriculture," said Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau. The more conservative of Minnesota's two major farmer interest groups, the bureau is a longtime Peterson backer.
Peterson was a founding member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate-to-conservative House Democrats that has dwindled as the Democratic base shifts more squarely to cities and suburbs. He is opposed to legal abortion and gun control, and often votes with Republicans on a wide range of issues.
Back in 1998, Peterson voted in favor of an impeachment inquiry against President Bill Clinton. He was one of 31 Democrats to do so. But he later voted against actually impeaching Clinton. The House, then controlled by Republicans, did impeach Clinton, but the vote to remove him from office fell short in the Senate.
In an interview in June, Peterson said his success in a strong Trump district had improved his standing with fellow House Democrats. While he differs with his party on many issues, he said he had a good working relationship with Pelosi, who understands the politics of his district. Peterson also explained his ready reply to DFLers from his district unsettled by his conservative bent. "I'm the best you're going to get."
Progressives in the Seventh District have absorbed that message, even if they don't like it.
"I voted for him in the last election, but it's only ever because he's against more awful people," said PZ Myers, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota-Morris who blogs about science and public policy. Meyers said he thinks there are risks for Peterson if he's too dismissive of allegations from the White House whistleblower.
"I do think there's going to be tremendously strong Democratic turnout in the next election," Meyers said. "It may not turn Stevens County red, but I think if he wants that turnout to benefit him he should be a little more progressive than he's been."
In 2016 and 2018, Peterson beat Republican Dave Hughes, a retired Air Force pilot who served in Iraq. Hughes is running a third time.
Fischbach, who served two decades in the state Senate and has close ties to the state's movement opposing abortion rights, will fight Hughes for the Republican endorsement. D.C. Republicans have signaled a preference for Fischbach, who was urged to run by Emmer, the current chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee.
Fischbach's position on impeachment is unambiguous, and she plans to run on it: "It's time to be done," she said.
Meanwhile Flicker, who co-founded the Morris chapter of the anti-Trump group Indivisible, said Democrats in Peterson's district "know he walks a fine line."