Democratic Reps. Collin Peterson and Rick Nolan clinched fresh terms in Congress serving northern and western Minnesota – collectively surviving a blizzard of negative ads in two of the priciest House races in the nation aimed at painting the incumbents as too liberal for the rural and small-town middle class voters.
Peterson fought off state Sen. Torrey Westrom and Nolan warded off Republican Stewart Mills in a race too close to call until well after midnight.
In the Seventh District, which hugs the state’s western flank down the North and South Dakota borders, the district has swayed more red than blue in other contests: Voters reliably prefer the Republican nominee for president and governor but keep sending Peterson, who votes with the Democrats only 68 percent of the time, back to Washington.
“I campaigned the way I have always campaigned, and it worked and I just didn’t worry about it,” Peterson said in an interview late Tuesday. “I learned what I always understood in this business is you have to trust the voters because they will do right at the end of the day. They’ll sort it all out.”
With all precincts reporting Wednesday morning, Peterson won by more than 8 percentage points -- 54.2 percent to 45.7 percent.
Nolan, celebrating into the early morning in Baxter, thanked supporters.
“It’s still a sweet victory. It’s a wonderful victory. Thanks to all of you for making it possible,” he said. “You always learn some lesson in every one of these campaigns … The lesson this year? People are sick and tired of the millions and millions of dollars of outside money.”
With 95 percent of the precincts reporting Wednesday morning, Nolan had 48.5 percent of the vote while Mills had 47.1 percent. That translated into a lead of more than 3,500 votes.
In Nolan’s Eighth District, which stretches from Canada to Lake Superior and the Twin Cities’ northern exurbs such as North Branch, Mills’ bid to unseat Nolan was among the most expensive House races in the nation, generating $12 million in outside money, not including the $1.8 million each candidate raised.
The district is known to be shifty and has changed party hands from Democrat to Republican back to Democrat in the past three election cycles.
The one thread the voters of the Eighth have in common — union mine workers, students from Duluth, suburban dwellers in North Branch — is they are mostly a bloc of middle-income earners. Both candidates touted messages centered around that theme even amid millions of dollars in blisteringly partisan ads.
Mills, a conservative, longhair 42-year-old scion of Mills Fleet Farm, fastidiously promoted conservative messages promoting the Second Amendment, shedding federal regulations, overhauling the Affordable Care Act and breaking through Washington gridlock.
Nolan, 70, was in Congress in the 1970s but was serving his first current term. Even in the minority, Nolan steered more than $60 million in federal money back to the district for projects. He wants the United States out of the Middle East and frequently praises President Obama’s health law, though he often says it doesn’t go far enough.
He acknowledged Tuesday at a party in Baxter a head wind against Democrats nationally.
“The president is not popular, we have a Green Party opponent, African-Americans are turning on the president, women are turning on the president — if there’s anything more that could go wrong for a Democrat running for Congress, I don’t know what it is,” he said.
Eager for farm bill
Peterson was helped because of his status as the most powerful Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. He is responsible for a number of components in the farm bill that benefited local farmers — especially sugar beet operations.
Peterson on Tuesday said he was eager to see the farm bill implementation through in his next two years.
In Westrom, Peterson had more of a race than previous cycles. The 41-year-old promoted his determination to be a productive member of society, despite being blinded at age 14 in a farming accident.
National groups pumped more than $8 million in cash to the inexpensive media markets in the Seventh, trying to portray Peterson as a creature of Washington who employed perks and reimbursements to fly his own plane around the district for meetings.
“We were ultimately not successful in bringing new leadership for western Minnesota,” Westrom said. “I pray that the next Congress will lead our country in a new, better direction, and that we will still get our great nation back on track.”
Allison Sherry • 202-383-6120