House races

Blind GOP candidate makes bid to oust veteran Minnesota Democrat

Twelve-term Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) is fighting for his political life. 

The top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Peterson is one of the few remaining centrist Blue Dogs in Congress. 

{mosads}Republicans are hoping to finally change that, and believe legally blind state Sen. Torrey Westrom (R) is the candidate to pull off the upset. 

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has poured in more than $4 million to unseat Peterson. Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has had to play defense to the tune of $2.8 million — something it hasn’t had to do for Peterson in more than a decade.

Westrom argues that Peterson has overextended his tenure in Congress.

“There’s a general sense that Collin Peterson’s been there too long,” said the Republican’s campaign spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll. 

Peterson had previously indicated he might retire after this cycle and not seek reelection in 2016. But the Democrat said this week that he might run until 2020 because the Republicans “made me mad,” according to The Minneapolis Star Tribune

Carroll argued that Peterson’s comment underscored he wasn’t running “for the right reasons.”

“This is what happens and you start feeling entitled to the seat,” Carroll said. “You get mad when there’s competition.”

Westrom also brings a compelling personal story. He lost his vision in a farm accident at the age of 14. Nonetheless, Westrom became a successful wrestler and was even inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

His campaign website boasts that since his first election to the Minnesota House in 1996, “Torrey Westrom has never lost a campaign.” Next Tuesday’s election will put that streak to the test. 

Despite the influx of spending from national Republicans, Westrom is still at a significant fundraising disadvantage against a senior incumbent — the Democrat has raised more than $1.4 million compared to Westrom’s $808,000. 

Peterson maintains that his seniority would continue to help his district, pointing to his work on the farm bill signed into law that he helped write with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.). 

“He wants to make sure the bill he wrote with Chairman Lucas is implemented the way they want it to,” Peterson campaign spokeswoman Allison Myhre said. “It’s a reason to keep him around given his seniority and what he can do for the district.”

Ads funded by the NRCC have portrayed Peterson as too entrenched in Washington and taking advantage of “taxpayer-funded perks,” such as federal reimbursements for rental cars and his private jet.

But Peterson’s campaign doesn’t think that message is resonating with the district. Myhre argued that voters are “turned off” by those ads.

To be sure, Minnesota’s 7th District is more conservative than most districts with a longtime Democratic representative. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won it by a 10-point margin in 2012.

Peterson is still in a better position than many other Democratic incumbents this cycle, and nonpartisan handicappers give him a slight edge. 

A KSTP survey from early October found that 50 percent of voters supported Peterson over 41 percent for Westrom. But a mid-October internal poll from Westrom’s campaign found Westrom ahead by 1 point, with 13 percent undecided. Myhre declined to provide internal polling numbers for Peterson’s campaign but said the Westrom survey was “certainly not reflective of our polling.”

Still, the margin this year could be much closer than the last election cycle. Even as Romney won 54 percent of the district’s vote, Peterson sailed to reelection with 60 percent.

Myrhe expressed optimism that Peterson would win reelection despite the efforts of national Republicans.

“It seems like a waste of money given his popularity,” Myrhe said. But, she said, “We’re not in the business of telling the Republicans what to do.”  

Tags Collin Peterson Torrey Westrom
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