Standing outside her Litchfield campaign office one recent Sunday afternoon, Michelle Fischbach promised two dozen supporters that she would do what no Republican has accomplished in three decades: defeat Collin Peterson.
The former lieutenant governor and longtime state lawmaker from Paynesville turned to a well-worn strategy Republicans have tried to unseat the conservative Blue Dog Democrat and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee: She brought up House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minnesota U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, both magnets of derision from the right.
“This election is a turning point for the country,” Fischbach said, borrowing some of President Donald Trump’s signature catchphrases in promising to “fire” Pelosi and Peterson.
Back on a campaign trail after an unsuccessful stint as Tim Pawlenty’s 2018 gubernatorial running mate, Fischbach is making her pitch in national terms to flip the sprawling Seventh Congressional District in western Minnesota. A prize recruit for the National Republican Congressional Committee, Fischbach is aiming to win a district that delivered a resounding victory for Trump in 2016 while also sending Peterson back to Congress.
The conservative rural district is widely viewed as the GOP’s top pickup opportunity in 2020: Multiple national election trackers have judged the race as a tossup for much of the past year, even though Peterson has held the seat since 1991.
In an unusual matchup of competing conservative credentials, Fischbach’s pitch is that it is time the district be represented by someone in a party more in line with the president that voters overwhelmingly backed four years ago. She also has used Peterson’s longevity against him.
“I guess I was under the impression that congressional seats were not held for a lifetime,” Fischbach said in an interview. “And so it is important to always get new people in and new blood and new ideas, new information.”
Boasting an endorsement by Trump, Fischbach has not shied from borrowing the president’s rhetoric and painting the race as a stark choice between two polar opposites.
“I think first and foremost people understand that this is a critical election,” Fischbach said. “We see the two directions the parties want to go: Nancy Pelosi, Omar and AOC [New York U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez] … and Vice President Biden, they want to move it in the direction of socialism. They want to move it in the direction of lawlessness and letting the riots happen. And that’s not what the Republicans want.”
State Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said he could not recall a more “aggressive, effective” campaign. “Sometimes the time and candidate come together,” said Urdahl, one of the GOP’s only unopposed state legislative candidates. “And in this case I think we have a very experienced candidate. … After about 30 years, people are ready for a change.”
Fischbach, 54, grew up in Woodbury before going to college in St. Joseph and St. Cloud. She was the first woman elected to the Paynesville City Council in the mid-1990s, serving briefly before being elected to the Minnesota Senate in 1996. She later became the first female president of the Minnesota Senate.
Politics was ever present in Fischbach’s life. Her mother is Darla St. Martin, co-executive director for National Right to Life, and Fischbach’s husband, Scott Fischbach, leads Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the state’s most prominent anti-abortion group.
Speculation about Fischbach as a contender for the Seventh Congressional District began as early as her first year in the Legislature, when GOP leaders in Washington convened a fundraiser for her.
As Senate president, Fischbach became lieutenant governor when former Gov. Mark Dayton picked then-Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to replace the resigning Al Franken in the U.S. Senate in 2018. Fischbach waged a legal battle to keep her Senate seat while also serving as lieutenant governor, but she eventually backed down.
As a state senator, Fischbach carried legislation on abortion informed consent, which mandates that women getting abortions be given information about risks and alternatives, and the Positive Alternatives Act of 2005, which set up a grant program for pregnancy care centers aimed at helping women in difficult circumstances while promoting alternatives to abortion.
“I was raised pro-life, I am pro-life, I believe absolutely in the right to life from conception to natural death,” she said.
Although Peterson also opposes abortion, Fischbach calls it “a key issue because it is so fundamental.”
Fischbach’s legislative tenure also delved heavily into higher education policy, working to devote more money for schools outside the metro area.
But the district’s economic lifeblood is farming, a specialty that Peterson has carved out as his own, and the political action committee of the influential Minnesota Farm Bureau has endorsed Peterson. Its president, Kevin Paap, is less sure how Fischbach would approach federal agriculture policy. He has meanwhile seen Peterson’s connections with Pelosi as an asset rather than a liability because it helped elevate farm issues as a top priority in Washington.
“It is so important to recognize that agriculture is critical to the economic success of this state, especially Greater Minnesota, and having a champion on the Agriculture Committee as its leader is something that is important,” Paap said.
At a recent campaign stop, Fischbach was reminded by a voter of the tall task of getting farmers in the district to align with her.
“It’s still hand-to-hand combat,” she replied. “We are visiting with the farmers every day.”
Fischbach has turned to another former Peterson opponent, state Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, to create an agricultural advisory committee for her campaign.
But in large part, Fischbach is relying on the themes that have propelled Trump in the district, even as Peterson was one of only two House Democrats to vote against the president’s impeachment.
As Fischbach spoke one afternoon, large “Defend Police” signs shared space with her own campaign placards at her campaign’s headquarters. Looking on and wearing Trump hats, 83-year-old Elsie Cook and her husband, Hank Cook, 84, nodded along and applauded as Fischbach echoed the president’s “law and order” message. For the Cooks, her tone struck a chord.
“She doesn’t have to have huge rallies or VIPs,” Elsie Cook said as Fischbach mingled with supporters after one of about a half dozen campaign stops in the district that day. “She’s a commoner like we are. She relates to people really well and she seems to be very interested in people. … She’s just one of us.”
Days earlier, Fischbach had to hop a security fence after being called onstage at a Trump rally in Bemidji. “It’s not worth a broken leg,” Trump joked as he watched her scale the gate. ”She’s a warrior, I can tell.”
Promising to be a faithful Trump ally in Congress, Fischbach talked later about the importance of the race in helping Republicans gain more power in Washington. “This is really a national race,” she said, “because it is one of the ones that will help flip the House.”