Peterson faces fight of his career in deep-red Minnesota district

Rep. Collin PetersonCollin Clark PetersonThe Hill's Campaign Report: 19 years since 9/11 | Dem rival to Marjorie Taylor Greene drops out | Collin Peterson faces fight of his career | Court delivers blow to ex-felon voting rights in Florida Peterson faces fight of his career in deep-red Minnesota district Democrats for Life urge DNC to change party platform on abortion MORE (D-Minn.) faces the toughest reelection fight of his career as he looks to begin a fourth decade in Congress as the rare anti-abortion, pro-gun Democrat, representing a sprawling rural district that went for President TrumpDonald John TrumpOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Pelosi: Trump hurrying to fill SCOTUS seat so he can repeal ObamaCare Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate MORE by 30 points in 2016.

Peterson, one of the founding members of the centrist Blue Dog Democrats, has survived for 15 terms in his deep-red Western Minnesota district by being willing to break with his party on key issues, including Trump’s impeachment.

A close ally of Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi: Trump hurrying to fill SCOTUS seat so he can repeal ObamaCare House lawmakers reach deal to avert shutdown Centrist Democrats 'strongly considering' discharge petition on GOP PPP bill MORE (D-Calif.), Peterson is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee — a huge draw for his constituents in a district where farmers grow sugar beets, wild rice, potatoes, corn and soybeans.

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Peterson campaigns across the massive district, which stretches from the Canadian border almost down to Iowa, by piloting his own Beechcraft single engine airplane.

After some near misses, Republicans believe they’ve landed a candidate in Michelle Fischbach who could bring an end to Peterson’s long winning streak.

Fischbach is well-known in the district, both as the first woman to be elected president of the Minnesota Senate and for replacing Sen. Tina SmithTina Flint SmithThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump and Biden vie for Minnesota | Early voting begins in four states | Blue state GOP governors back Susan Collins GOP Senate candidate says Trump, Republicans will surprise in Minnesota Biden promises Democratic senators help in battleground states MORE (D-Minn.) as lieutenant governor after Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenGOP Senate candidate says Trump, Republicans will surprise in Minnesota Peterson faces fight of his career in deep-red Minnesota district Getting tight — the psychology of cancel culture MORE (D-Minn.) resigned and Smith was appointed to his seat.

Fischbach has outraised Peterson every full period she’s been in the race and earned one of Trump’s first congressional endorsements earlier this year. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report moved the race from “lean Democratic” to “toss-up” after Fischbach won the GOP primary.

“Fischbach is a good candidate. Let’s be straight about this — it’s a very strong challenge for Peterson,” said Todd Rapp, a veteran Democratic operative in Minnesota. “But every strength that she has, Collin Peterson can match, whether it’s leadership on agricultural issues or his positions on guns and abortion. He’s a crafty campaigner. He knows the district really well. They’ve been voting more and more for Republicans, but they still have an independent streak.”

That independent streak helped Peterson win reelection in 2016 by about 16,000 votes over little-known and underfunded Republican Dave Hughes in a year when Trump won the district by 30 points. There were more than 60,000 Trump-Peterson voters that year.

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Peterson’s margin shrunk to about 12,000 votes in a rematch against Hughes in 2018, a huge year for Democrats.

The difference in 2020 is that the Trump campaign plans to spend heavily in Minnesota, becoming the first GOP presidential campaign in decades to treat the state as a battleground.

The Trump campaign has reserved $14 million in airtime in Minnesota with a focus on turning out rural voters in the 7th Congressional District and across the Iron Range.

There is a lot of activist energy on the ground for Trump in the rural parts of Minnesota after he came within 1.5 points of turning the state red for the first time since 1972, despite not spending any money there in 2016.

“We’ve never seen this kind of spending or ground game in a presidential race, so it is a bit of an unknown what the down-ballot impact will be,” said Amy Koch, a Republican and the former majority leader in the Minnesota Senate. “The Trump campaign has been door-knocking for months to turn out voters in greater Minnesota. There will be more people getting out to vote for Trump in 2020 than there were in 2016.”

Peterson declined to endorse then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonButtigieg stands in as Pence for Harris's debate practice Senate GOP sees early Supreme Court vote as political booster shot Poll: 51 percent of voters want to abolish the electoral college MORE in 2016, but he’s all-in for Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate Trump attacks Omar for criticizing US: 'How did you do where you came from?' MORE in 2020, belonging to the Sportsmen & Sportswomen for Biden coalition of hunters and anglers and hosting a farmers and ranchers roundtable to promote the Biden campaign’s plan for rural America.

“I can say with some confidence that I think Joe Biden will do better in the 7th District than Hillary Clinton did,” said Mike Erlandson, the former chairman of the state Democratic Party. “Hillary Clinton carried every bit of that old Clinton baggage, which was very much a negative in greater Minnesota. Joe Biden doesn’t have that same kind of personal baggage.”

So far, the GOP strategy has been to tie Peterson to Pelosi, whom he has long supported as Speaker.

“One of the most important things a congressman does is vote on party leadership,” said David Fitzsimmons, Fischbach’s campaign manager. “He’s had seven times to vote for Speaker and he’s voted for Pelosi every time. She’s a big part of our message because she sets the agenda in Congress and removing her as Speaker is the number one goal for Republicans.”

Peterson’s spokeswoman Sue Dieter said the congressman has lasted so long because he finds ways to work with leaders in both parties.

“He’s said for as long as I’ve known him that you can’t get anything done unless you work with everyone,” Dieter said. “Nancy Pelosi is Speaker; you have to work with her. She’s helped us get important legislation passed, including the farm bill. He also worked with Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanKenosha will be a good bellwether in 2020 At indoor rally, Pence says election runs through Wisconsin Juan Williams: Breaking down the debates MORE when he was Speaker.”

The Fischbach campaign is also seeking to tie Peterson to left-wing racial justice activists, running an ad highlighting the destructive elements of the protests that wracked Minneapolis following the police killing of George Floyd.

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The national Republican Congressional Campaign Committee will go up with its own ads backing Fischbach later this month. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not revealed any plans to go on the air for Peterson in the final stretch.

Peterson can effectively neutralize many of the traditional attacks Republicans fire at Democrats in rural areas.

He opposes abortion and has the backing of the National Rifle Association, from which he has an A-plus rating.

He’s backed by a broad consortium of both conservative and liberal groups, from the Minnesota Farm Bureau to the Minnesota AFL-CIO. He won the Spirit of Enterprise award from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce this year.

Peterson was one of only two House Democrats to vote against impeaching Trump. The other, Rep. Jefferson Van Drew of New Jersey, has since switched parties and become a Republican.

Peterson also voted against ObamaCare, although he has opposed efforts to repeal the law.

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“The 7th District is basically made up of independents, and he’s about as independent a politician as you can have,” said Erlandson.

But Republicans don’t believe Peterson has ever faced a legitimate challenge from a top-tier candidate. They believe Fischbach changes the equation.

Peterson has rarely gone up against a rival who has raised more than $1 million, as Fischbach has.

Fischbach also has high name recognition throughout the district, something Peterson’s last challenger lacked.

“It’s the first time we’ve had a real candidate,” said Annette Meeks, a longtime GOP strategist in the state. “He’s just never had a serious opponent before. Michelle has experience and connections within the district. When an overwhelmingly Republican district has a legitimate choice — and Michelle makes this a legitimate choice — they’ll vote for the Republican.”