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True story: Collin Peterson used to have a tough time getting elected to Congress. It took Peterson four tries before he finally defeated Republican incumbent Arlan Stangeland in 1990. Then Peterson faced back-to-back challenges from Republican Bernie Omann. In 1992 and 1994, Peterson held his seat, defeating Omann by a combined tally of fewer than 9,000 votes.

Peterson challengers watch and wait

Collin Peterson

Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, left, speaks to a crowd at Farmfest
on Aug. 6 in Redwood Falls, Minn. Seated at right is 1st District U.S.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn. The two moderate Democrats have managed to win elections in relatively conservative districts. (AP Photo: The Independent, Karin Elton)

Despite encouraging signs, CD 7 Republicans slow to enter fray

True story: Collin Peterson used to have a tough time getting elected to Congress. It took Peterson four tries before he finally defeated Republican incumbent Arlan Stangeland in 1990. Then Peterson faced back-to-back serious challenges from Republican Bernie Omann. In the 1992 and 1994 elections, Peterson held his seat narrowly, defeating Omann by a combined tally of fewer than 9,000 votes.

Since then, there has been little electoral drama for Peterson, a former accountant and state senator who has risen to a powerful post in the House Agriculture Committee and a seemingly invincible position in the 7th Congressional District.

Throughout 2013, Peterson, 69, has been asked repeatedly whether he would retire from his seat. To this point Peterson has been noncommittal, saying only that he plans to decide early next year. Sensing weakness, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has pounced, issuing a series of paid advertisements targeting Peterson online, and taking out a $24,000 television ad buy against him in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

They are encouraged in part by Peterson’s consistently low fundraising totals during this election cycle. After raising just over $80,000 from July through September, Peterson’s campaign reported that he had only $227,000 in cash on hand.

“It almost looks as if he’s getting lazy,” said Alleigh Marre, a spokeswoman with the NRCC. “There’s just no enthusiasm, and his fundraising numbers are terrible.”

Marre said the low cash total is evidence enough to inspire a concentrated effort to oust the DFL incumbent, adding that the NRCC has been in contact with area Republicans to coordinate an effective campaign. Even with that attention, and the promise of additional spending from GOP political groups, Peterson’s race has yet to draw any Republican challengers, let alone one who might give him a serious race. The main sticking point, it seems, is Peterson himself.

Craig Bishop, chair of the 7th Congressional District GOP executive committee, is helping to carry out candidate recruitment, and has been in contact with numerous potential candidates, including prominent state legislators.

“Some of them aren’t really interested right now,” Bishop said. “If [Peterson] doesn’t run, then obviously we’ll have a lot of candidates running.”

 Easy wins in a red district

As a moderate Democrat who has largely won over a relatively conservative district, Peterson is comparable to his fellow Minnesotan, DFL U.S. Rep. Tim Walz — but to few others in the increasingly polarized U.S. House. Last year, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney beat President Barack Obama 53 percent to 44 percent in the 7th CD.

The same night, Peterson was celebrating an easy re-election victory, collecting more than 60 percent of the district vote and vanquishing Republican Lee Byberg for a second straight time. University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said Peterson’s ability to win over a district that went so heavily for Romney harks back to a bygone era, when a centrist, bipartisan coalition existed in Congress.  His reputation in the district remains undiminished, Jacobs said, even if Republicans attempt to tie him to Obama.

“That’s been tried by Republicans for decades,” Jacobs said. “They just pin him to whatever big name Democrat there is. The voters in the seventh know Collin Peterson, and there’s a lot of personal connection there.”

It appears Republicans will attempt the same approach to Peterson in 2014, at least if early campaign messaging is any indication: NRCC communications and online ads from this year have linked Peterson to “Obama’s sequester” and “Obama’s shutdown.” Marre, meanwhile, pointed out that, while Peterson didn’t vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, he has so far resisted efforts by House Republicans to overturn or de-fund that law.

 State politicos see opening

Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, lives in the 8th Congressional District, but much of his Senate District 9 falls in Peterson territory. He thinks voters in that area can be reached by a candidate who is “conservative on social issues and moderate on fiscal issues.” In touring that side of his district, Gazelka thinks voters are alarmed by a leftward social drift, both in Minnesota and nationally.

“They want somebody that shares their common sense values related to family structure, life and the Second Amendment,” Gazelka said.

On at least two of those counts, Peterson is well covered. He’s carried the endorsement of the National Rifle Association for years, and voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Peterson lost the endorsement of the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL) last year for his perceived support for the Affordable Care Act, but the absence did little to hurt his election performance.

Byberg, Peterson’s electoral foe in the 2012 and 2010, has said he is still thinking about whether to pursue a rematch next year, despite failing to reach 40 percent in either of the last two contests. The only other possible entrant who has publicly stated his interest is Scott Van Binsbergen, a Montevideo real estate agent and political novice.

Republican activist Scott Dutcher said he’d heard chatter about a number of conservatives who could run strong campaigns, including Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, and GOP Sens. Bill Ingebrigtsen (Alexandria) and Torrey Westrom (Elbow Lake), though so far none of those candidates has expressed an inclination to enter the race. Dutcher thinks they’re waiting to hear about Peterson’s retirement plans — and that their reticence is hurting the party’s chance to mount a serious bid against Peterson.

“Every day that goes by when you’re not out campaigning is another day you’re not making the case,” Dutcher said.

Even if Peterson were to stay in the race and defeat a credible Republican candidate, Dutcher argues, the loser would have a head start when the 12-term Democrat finally does decide to step down.

Fabian acknowledged that he was aware of people trying to bring him into the race, but played down the notion, humbly describing himself “a phy ed teacher from Roseau.” Though he isn’t saying “no” definitively, Fabian said he believes there are more politically savvy contenders who might be a better fit.

“That people think I could have an impact on the national level is humbling, and somewhat flattering — but I’m not into flattery,” said Fabian, who added that, as of Thursday afternoon, he was focused on preparing a fish fry with his neighbors. “To think that I would somehow blend in in Washington, with all those people? I don’t know.”

Bishop said the CD 7 search committee has been vetting and reaching out to a number of different potential candidates, warning them, among other things, about the imposing physical size of the district, which spans more than 350 miles north to south. Bishop also tries to communicate Peterson’s strength as an incumbent, a factor that he said should help the party determine what kind of candidate to put forward.

“It’d be nice if [the candidate] had the name recognition of a state legislator, or a prominent businessman of some kind,” Bishop said. “Running a race like this, you need money, conservative credentials and name recognition. You can maybe get by without one of those.”

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