Collin Peterson’s opponent looks for opening in Trump-backing district

September 14, 2018

WASHINGTON As U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson is mired in negotiations over the next farm bill, his Republican opponent back in Minnesota is working to unseat the longtime DFLer trying to hold on in a congressional district that overwhelmingly supported President Donald Trump.

The president himself weighed in last weekend with a tweet in support of Republican Dave Hughes. It was a welcome bit of attention for Petersons challenger, in a race that has not drawn the same kind of attention from national Republicans who have focused on flipping Trump-backing districts in southern and northeastern Minnesota from Democrat to Republican.

So far its kind of a sleeper race, said Hughes, a 21-year U.S. Air Force veteran.

Hughes lost to Peterson by just five percentage points in 2016, with little name recognition and hardly any money, as voters in the district backed Trump by 31 percentage points. Now Hughes is hopeful that he can finally convince constituents that Peterson is politically out of touch with the rural, western Minnesota district that sprawls from Canada, along the North and South Dakota borders and nearly down to Iowa.

Hes ridden this ostensible wave of maverick-ism, if I can make up a word, but I think thats a lot of sound and fury and not much substance, said Hughes, who lives in Karlstad with his wife, Amanda, and their seven children.

Deep in the heart of farm country, Peterson is best known for being the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, its former chairman and the longest-serving member on the panel. Hes among a small group of federal lawmakers trying to negotiate a final five-year farm bill by Sept. 30, at a time when many farmers are reeling from low commodities prices and a trade war.

It takes so long to get there, Peterson said of his leadership post. It is not easy to climb the ladder and get to this position, and farmers understand that.

Hughes, who said Peterson is coasting on past glory as the panels former chairman, criticized his handling of the farm bill.

The committees Republican chairman, Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, pushed legislation that would have expanded the group of food stamp recipients who are required to work in order to receive the benefit. Democrats, and Republicans in the U.S. Senate, opposed that move. Peterson pulled out of negotiations at the request of fellow Democrats on the committee, and went months without speaking to Conaway. Talks are underway again, but Peterson said theyre moving slowly at the moment because of spending disputes between Conaway and the Senate Democrat in the negotiating group.

Peterson was elected in 1990 as a founding member of the Blue Dog coalition of conservative Democrats. Hes embraced gun ownership rights and received contributions from the National Rifle Association; Peterson also voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2010, though more recently he has sided with his own party in opposing GOP attempts to repeal the law.

Over his career, Peterson repeatedly defeated Republican opponents by double-digit margins. In 2014, Republicans named Peterson as a top target, and outside groups spent millions to help state Sen. Torrey Westrom unseat him, only to lose by eight percentage points. Hughes spent just $19,564 on the last campaign, compared to Petersons $682,928. This time around, Hughes has raised $112,433. Hes got $6,328 in cash on hand, while Peterson has almost $1.3 million.

Hughes said hes doing more expansive outreach than before, participating in 101 parades this summer and distributing 4,000 yard signs.

Republican State Rep. Tim Miller, of Prinsburg, launched a campaign last year to run against Peterson in 2018, then dropped back out of the race a few months later. Miller said he believes that the race is winnable for the right candidate with the right resources, but still difficult.

Collin Peterson has not only been an incumbent for a long time, but hes been very artful in positioning himself with agriculture, Miller said. He added that hes met people in the agricultural community who say, We dont want to take our chances -- we need to make sure that Collins there to get the farm bill through.

Hughes voiced certainty that voters in the district are still enthusiastic about Trump, despite the controversy over his tariffs. Farmers understand that the pain will be short-term, Hughes said.

His America first agenda is a solid agenda that I think peope of all political stripes can get behind, said Hughes. When it comes to making trade fairer and better for the American economy, whats not to like? Im on board.

Hughes reached out to representatives of Trump to solicit the Twitter endorsement.

He will help us accomplish our America First policies, is strong on Crime, the Border, our Second [Amendment], Trade, Military and Vets. Running against Pelosi Liberal Puppet Petterson [sic]. Dave has my Total Endorsement! Trump tweeted on Sept. 8.

I guess you can make stuff up, apparently, Peterson said of the presidents Pelosi comparison.

Peterson, among the more conservative Democrats in the House, noted a Georgetown University study giving him the highest bipartisan legislation score in 2017.

Hughes teaches U.S. Customers and Border Protection air crews how to fly drones to monitor the northern and southern borders. Immigration is one of the districts biggest issues, Hughes believes, and he wants to secure the border and have a wall built.

I dont think enthusiasm for President Trump has diminished at all if anything, its stronger in western Minnesota, said Hughes.

Peterson doesnt think that Trumps strong showing in 2016 will put his reelection at risk.

Trumps not on the ballot, he said.

Maya Rao 202-662-7433

Update hourly