MOORHEAD, Minn. – Rep. Collin Peterson is driving alone in his gold pickup, carrying his own cellphone, heading out to the harvested fields where, as the nation's ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, he hustled for 24 years to keep price guarantees for sugar farmers and a robust crop insurance program for everyone else.
Now at 70, he's hustling again — this time for votes as he struggles to hang on to his seat against a blind Republican legislator who is giving him the run of his career in a district that has grown more conservative by the year.
The Seventh Congressional District contest between Peterson and state Sen. Torrey Westrom has become one of the state's most closely watched races — and one of the most expensive. With national Republicans eager to seize an opportunity to unseat Peterson, more than $8 million in outside money has poured into this race.
GOP ads have attacked Peterson as a creature of Washington, who sticks taxpayers with the bill for a private plane he flies to travel his sprawling rural district. Democratic ads have hit at Westrom just as hard, reminding voters of the $300,000 in expenses that Westrom collected from taxpayers over the years to cover legislative duties.
On the stump, Westrom frequently attempts to tie Peterson to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, noting that even though Peterson votes with the Democrats only 68 percent of the time, he takes her cues on "votes that matter" — including raising the debt ceiling.
"He's been there 24 years; it's time for him to go; that's long enough," he told a group of supporters gathered in a St. Cloud bar earlier this week.
Westrom's playbook sounds a little more like 2010 than 2014. He rails against raising the debt ceiling unless there is a balanced-budget amendment attached, and getting leaders such as Pelosi, who hasn't run the House of Representatives in four years, out of the decisionmaking process.
Despite dismal approval ratings for both parties in Washington and a Congress that has presided over a government shutdown and two years of historic gridlock, Westrom praised the Republican-controlled House.
"They have been more laudable than what Nancy Pelosi can produce," he said.
Peterson, meanwhile, showed up without staffers at a Wednesday news conference that included a group of farmers and news media members, telling the farmers without much preamble that "I've focused on agriculture. In this climate, you know, the [farm] bill was the premiere bill in the last two years. It was bipartisan. It took longer than it should have, but in the end we got a good bill that gives us a safety net."
Peterson looked around the room, but didn't ask for a single vote and didn't mention his GOP opponent. Instead, he said simply, "I'd be happy to take advice," and faced the farmers.
Westrom has a more difficult time than most Republicans trying to distinguish himself from Peterson, because Peterson frequently acts like a Republican, often supporting GOP measures and garnering endorsements from such traditional GOP constituencies as the National Rifle Association and the Farm Bureau.
Despite some polls putting the two within five or six points, Peterson's approach to campaigning is almost nonexistent. His staff doesn't send out news releases touting his every accomplishment and he eschews big speeches, self-promotion and boisterous rallies.
Part of that may be lack of practice: Peterson hasn't faced a tight race in years. Even when the district was supporting GOP presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney, it was returning Peterson to Washington by double-digit margins.
"I think all the mud that's coming from the national Republican Party, it doesn't really stick," said former state Sen. Roger Moe, who lives in Peterson's district.
"Folks aren't listening to that. Folks know that Collin attends their meetings and that he knows what he's talking about."
Westrom: faced obstacles
Westrom on the campaign trail often brandishes his personal story — he was blinded at age 14 in a farming accident — as proof that he overcomes obstacles and would be a dogged representative.
He says in stump speeches that he is the guy who "walks softly and carries a big stick," referring to his ever-present black-and-white cane.
"I've learned there's not a time to make excuses and there's always a way to get things done," Westrom said, speaking about his disability. "It does become an asset in that sense when you come to challenges, you have to find a way to get over it and move on and take the cards you're dealt and make the best of it."
Westrom blames Peterson for not moving construction of the Keystone pipeline, although that's not in congressional hands now.
The State Department is in the middle of an environmental review and the decision on whether to construct the pipeline, which will bring crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast, will be made by the Obama administration.
"If you're going to support leaders who don't want to build the Keystone pipeline, it just makes it much harder to get a project through," Westrom said.
Farm bill benefits
The verdant Seventh District along the state's western border includes prosperous-looking farms set amid rolling hills as well as the broad, flat Red River Valley. It has a low unemployment rate and a mean income of $63,000, according to the state demographer's office.
While the current farm bill got rid of direct subsidies to farmers, this district last year reaped more direct ag payments than 427 other congressional districts.
The new bill particularly benefits the district's concentration of sugar beet farmers. The 2014 farm bill — passed out of both the House and the Senate and signed by President Obama — guaranteed sugar prices, limited imports and allowed sugar producers to repay government loans with sugar if prices fall below established limits.
Millions of dollars of lobbying money was poured into the farm bill by American Crystal Sugar, based in Moorhead.
Peterson calls the farm bill a crowning achievement because he had to work with both the left flank of his own party and the Republicans to forge agreement amid one of the most partisan Congresses in recent history.
Peterson notes that he not only got Pelosi to support the bill and round up votes, he also got Republican House Speaker John Boehner to support the farm bill for the first time.
That, he said, "is the kind of work that needs to be done in Washington."