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Despite the presence of a popular incumbent who has trounced his last several challengers, Republicans have fielded a well-known candidate in the 7th Congressional District. To hear some of that area’s activists tell it, the first GOP entrant in that race might be the party’s best chance in years to oust DFL U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson.

Westrom: Time is on his side

“I think there’s a lot of new interest in this race that two or four or eight years ago may not have existed.”— GOP congressional candidate and state Sen. Torrey Westrom

“I think there’s a lot of new interest in this race that two or four or eight years ago may not have existed.”
— GOP congressional candidate and state Sen. Torrey Westrom

Popular state senator eyes  Peterson congressional seat in 2014 – or 2016?

Despite the presence of a popular incumbent who has trounced his last several challengers, Republicans have fielded a well-known candidate in the 7th Congressional District. To hear some of that area’s activists tell it, the first GOP entrant in that race might be the party’s best chance in years to oust DFL U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson.

Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, announced his congressional campaign in early December, bringing an end to several months of speculation about his possibly joining that race. Westrom is seeking promotion to higher office after just getting used to a new job: After eight terms in the state House of Representatives, he ran for and won an open Senate seat create through redistricting in 2012.

Westrom came to the decision following encouragement from local Republicans, as well as conversations with national campaign officials. In running for national office, the state Capitol veteran knows he is dealing with much larger burdens in terms of fundraising and geography – the 7th is the state’s largest Congressional district – than in past years, but believes he is up to the challenge.

Sensing a general public distaste for the performance of Congress, Republicans both inside and outside the district have told the new candidate that 2014 might be the right year to give Peterson a strong challenge.

“I think there’s a lot of new interest in this race that two or four or eight years ago may not have existed,” Westrom said.

Peterson vulnerable this time?

Peterson’s record of repeatedly waltzing to re-election is clearly a point of frustration for Republicans, who see the Western Minnesota district as one that should belong to them. Barack Obama lost the district by nearly 10 percent in 2012, but Peterson collected 61 percent of the area’s vote.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, a close friend of Westrom’s who was also recruited to run against Peterson, said the DFL incumbent has been “very artful” in taking pro-life and pro-gun rights positions that resonate with conservative voters.

But Ingebrigtsen pointed to possible vulnerabilities on other issues, such as Peterson’s support for cap-and-trade, and his inability to either repeal or fix problematic issues with the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Beyond that, Peterson is a fixture in Washington, D.C. at a time when public opinion of Congress has hit historic lows.

“I think the general public is saying we need some real change down there in Washington,” Ingebrigtsen said. “And [Westrom] would be a tremendous change.”

More than one area party activist thinks national GOP figures are angling to finally knock off Peterson, who has held the seat since 1991. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has produced a series of advertisements targeting the Democrat. The NRCC’s latest effort came in the form of a radio ad, released on Thursday morning, linking Peterson’s time in office to the rapid rise in the national debt.

Republican consultant Ben Golnik said wooing national campaign organizers has always been the trick for Peterson’s competitors.

“Peterson has never proven to be a strong fundraiser,” Golnik said. “Torrey will do well if he can prove he has a good campaign team in place. For [Republican] people in Washington, it’s definitely a race that’s high on their target list.”

Westrom will catch on with the area’s constituents when they learn of his strong record in support of farmers and the Second Amendment, according to 7th Congressional District Republican chair Craig Bishop. Voters will also be impressed by Westrom’s accomplishments in spite of his disability: Blinded by an accident at the age of 14, Westrom went on to graduate from William Mitchell Law School, and is the first legally blind member of the Minnesota Legislature.

“He’s a very compelling candidate, and he’s got a great story to tell,” Bishop said.

Acclaim for Westrom’s success despite adversity will likely have to come from supporters, such as Ingebrigtsen, who described Westrom’s accomplishments as “amazing.” For his part, Westrom tends to address the issue of his blindness with humor.

Asked how he would navigate the geography of the 7th District, which sprawls from the Canadian border to the southwestern corner of the state, Westrom deadpanned: “Actually, I’m thinking about getting my pilot’s license.”

Other potential challengers

At least two other conservatives are still thinking about joining the race, though neither can claim anything like Westrom’s record of electoral success. Real estate agent Scott Van Binsbergen, who is expected to announce his decision in January, has run for the Legislature twice, losing both contests.

Also known to be considering a campaign is Lee Byberg, a Willmar businessman who ran against Peterson in 2010 and again in 2012, and lost by wide margins. The viability of another run from Byberg was questioned even by Lyon County GOP chairman Robert Meffert, who originally nominated Byberg in 2010.

“How strong is it to run a candidate for a third time?” Meffert said.

Conversely, Meffert thinks a competitive race from Westrom in 2014 could set up an even better showing in the next election cycle. Should Peterson win re-election and decide not to run in 2016, Westrom could enter that race as the “incumbent candidate,” and would hold an advantage over any potential Democratic successor to Peterson, Meffert said.

As a senator, Westrom is granted something of a free pass at a congressional campaign in 2014, as he will not have to sacrifice his seat to mount a congressional campaign until the following election cycle. For now, he is focused on introducing himself to the district’s donors and voters, including the many conservatives who have backed Peterson in the recent past.

“I won every county in my district last year – even those counties that lean Democratic,” Westrom said. “This is going to be a much bigger race, but we feel very strong about our position.”

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