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NRCC launches Obamacare strike at Walz, Peterson, Nolan

Charley Shaw//October 30, 2013

NRCC launches Obamacare strike at Walz, Peterson, Nolan

Charley Shaw//October 30, 2013

Collin Peterson
AP photo
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Republicans are criticizing the 7th Congressional District incumbent for more recently voting against its repeal. The pressure from the GOP is a move to gain ground on a firmly entrenched DFLer in a GOP-leaning district.

A national Republican group is hammering DFLers in three greater Minnesota congressional districts over the technical failures that have beset the rollout of the federal health insurance exchange.

A trio of nearly identical e-mails was sent Tuesday in quick succession by the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) attacking incumbent DFL Reps. Rick Nolan, Collin Peterson and Tim Walz. The piece targeting Nolan, for example, carried the subject line: “Fix the Glitch: Fire Rick Nolan.”

The releases contend that the problems with the website need to be fixed at the ballot box. The mailers fault the three Democrats for their votes in May not to repeal the Affordable Health Act, also known as Obamacare. “Peterson voted to keep Obamacare on the books,” said NRCC Communications Director Andrea Bozek. “If Minnesota families want to stop the madness, they can start with firing Collin Peterson.”

For a variety of reasons, the three races aren’t on the top of most Washington handicappers’ lists of essential battleground districts, even though all three are home to considerable expanses of staunch Republican turf. DFL Chair Ken Martin acknowledged that the problems with the Obamacare website are significant. But he said the tumult doesn’t place the three incumbents in political jeopardy.

“This is what I would call a fishing expedition,” Martin said. “They’re trying to change the narrative and they’re trying to see if they can soften up the sitting incumbents in those districts to see if they have any chance of winning. What we’re seeing in our polling is that Minnesotans and Americans, overall, support Obamacare. In spite of the problems with the rollout, they do not support the Republicans’ proposals to repeal Obamacare and shut government down to do so.”

While the NRCC pieces are largely boilerplate, the races that they are seeking to influence have different dynamics heading into the 2014 election year.

Pushing for Peterson retirement

In Peterson’s 7th Congressional District, which comprises much of western and northwestern Minnesota, the attacks are complicated by the fact that Peterson voted against Obamacare in 2010. Republicans are criticizing Peterson for more recently voting against its repeal.

The pressure from the GOP is a move to gain ground on a firmly entrenched DFLer in a GOP-leaning district. Going back to 1988, the conservative Democrat Peterson has won convincingly in the demographically red district. In the last two election cycles, Peterson has trounced Lee Byberg of Willmar. One GOP activist in western Minnesota said that Byberg has apparently not been making the rounds for a third campaign.

But there are credible candidates testing the waters for a 2014 run against Peterson. One person who has been actively mulling a run is state Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake. Word about Westrom’s interest started surfacing this summer. More recently he made the trip to Blaine for last weekend’s GOP State Central Committee meeting. Should Westrom run, he won’t need to worry about relinquishing his Senate seat, because the state House will be the only legislative chamber up for election in 2014.

“I’m not ruling it out,” Westrom told Capitol Report. “I think there’s a growing dissatisfaction with Washington and the dysfunction, and their approval rating is at an all-time low. There’s a growing concern and frustration with voters in [state Senate] District 12 as well as CD 7 for what’s happening in Washington.”

Another Republican in CD 7 that’s been mentioned is Montevideo businessman Scott Van Binsbergen. The former staffer to former GOP Congressman Vin Weber has received some attention in Washington regarding his interest in a run, including an item this summer in the Beltway publication Roll Call.

Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier noted that the GOP’s likely strategy is to put pressure on Peterson to make him consider retirement.

“The play is to try to encourage him not to run or to make this his last term,” Schier said. “They’re trying to make the climate inhospitable for him either now or two years from now.”

Walz, Nolan face attacks

In the course of four terms in the 1st CD, which spans the breadth of southern Minnesota, Walz has proven to be a formidable incumbent. He has been aided by his strong showing in the district’s regional centers, including the crucial population center of Rochester.

Nathan Gonzalez of the Rothenberg Political Report has observed that Republicans in Washington don’t want to give Walz a free pass in 2014, although the GOP field has yet to produce any clear stand-outs. So far, the candidates officially running are state Rep. Mike Benson, R-Rochester, Army Reservist Aaron Miller from Byron and former congressional staffer Jim Hagedorn of Blue Earth. One potential candidate who hasn’t yet announced is state Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester. Nelson, who has said she’s being pushed to run by people inside and outside the district, is currently focusing her public pronouncements on the Affordable Care Act. In the Rochester area, just one health plan is currently available under the state-created and operated MNsure exchange.

“My energies at the very moment,” Nelson told Capitol Report, “are focused on making sure Rochester citizens have access to more than one plan if they are purchasing off of the MNsure exchange. … I’m going to have to consider the 1st District at a little bit later date.”

While Republicans in the 8th district are targeting Nolan on Obamacare, he’s actually garnered national headlines in recent days for telling Obama to “man up” and fire someone over the dysfunctional health insurance website. In 2012 Nolan was elected to Congress after a 32-year absence, thus avenging the 2010 defeat of veteran Democratic Congressman Jim Oberstar at the hands of Republican Chip Cravaack. The seat was a major target for Democrats last year. This time, Nolan has a financially well-heeled challenger in Steward Mills III, who is a scion of the Mills Fleet Farm store chain.

Schier said that the 8th CD could be the best GOP pick-up opportunity among the three they are targeting with Obamacare attacks.

“Mr. Mills spends a lot of money, and if Mr. Nolan is not energetic enough or doesn’t have enough money, it could be a tight race,” Schier said.

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