House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, facing the toughest re-election race of his 30-year career, is banking on voters not wanting to lose his clout with Democratic leaders and experience in farm policy.

But Peterson has a well-funded, well-known GOP challenger in former Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach in his heavily Republican district. And now, President Donald Trump’s campaign is vowing to pour money and time into winning Minnesota, potentially boosting GOP turnout. 

Peterson has maintained the backing of many farm groups and boasts a strong relationship with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. He says despite their policy and spending differences, his relationship with Pelosi is important for his sprawling district, which covers much of the western third of Minnesota. 

As evidence of his influence with Pelosi, he points to the $33 billion in agricultural provisions that Pelosi included in the massive coronavirus relief bill, the HEROES Act, that passed the House this spring. 

“I supported that HEROES bill even though I thought it was too much spending because she accepted my language without a question, and that’s the relationship that we have,” Peterson said in an interview with Agri-Pulse.

A pro-Peterson political action committee heavily backed by sugar growers, the Committee for Stronger Rural Communities, says it has raised $1 million over the past year and is on the air district-wide with ads. The group plans to continue with voter outreach, polling and targeted digital ads, a spokesman said.

Voters in the district "care about the issues more than they care about the political parties, and they like Rep. Peterson because he rises above party politics and calls the shots based on what's right for the district. So we're talking to voters about Rep. Peterson's record of bipartisan accomplishments, on farming, veterans affairs, fair trade, health care and the economy," said Kelly Erickson, who chairs the CSRC steering committee.

But the district is arguably getting redder each election cycle. Trump beat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by 31 points there in 2016, and Peterson has been winning re-election by smaller margins. In 2018 and 2016, he defeated retired Air Force officer Dave Hughes by 52% to 48%; Peterson held a larger margin over Republican state legislator Torrey Westrom in 2014, when he won a 54-46 race. 

Hughes ran for the GOP nomination again this year, but Fischbach easily won the five-candidate primary Aug. 11 with 59% of the vote

A poll conducted Aug. 2-5 by The Tarrance Group, a GOP firm, had Fischbach leading Peterson by 52% to 42%.

Despite having more than $1 million in cash on hand, Peterson will have to work harder than usual to win, said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

Michelle Fischbach

Michelle Fischbach

He has “a well-known opponent with a lot of resources and a presidential candidate of her party who is targeting Minnesota and putting big resources into the state,” Schier said. 

Peterson also faces a new dynamic in the Trump campaign’s decision to target Minnesota. 

Schier said the Trump campaign has about 50 staff people on the ground in Minnesota with a media budget of $14 million; Trump also endorsed Fischbach earlier this year.

“He spent no money and no time here four years ago and came within one and a half percent of carrying the state, so you could say the 7th District is really ground zero for the Trump campaign,” Schier said.

Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien told reporters Tuesday the president is “all in” for Minnesota. “We have plans to spend $14 million on TV in Minnesota from now until election ... we’ve already laid down the marker on Minnesota and we think it’s a state we can win,” Stepien said.

Former Vice President Joe Biden said recently that Minnesota is on his short list of states to visit, and his campaign began running TV ads in the Twin Cities, Duluth, and Rochester markets this week.

Fischbach was first elected to Minnesota’s state senate in 1996 and became its first female president in 2011. As senate president in 2017, she automatically became lieutenant governor in 2018 when Tina Smith resigned to take the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Al Franken.

Fischbach, who plans to seek a seat on the House Agriculture Committee if she defeats Peterson, told Agri-Pulse some of her priorities for agriculture are improving the food supply chain to minimize disruptions from a pandemic, fighting for biofuel producers, and continuing to hold China accountable on trade.

“They’re obviously a very large consumer, and so we need to make sure we are selling with them, but we can’t be blind as to who we are dealing with,” she said.

Asked about farm groups’ concerns with losing Peterson’s experience, Fischbach said she will be focused on writing a new farm bill, which will be due in 2023. “I’m really open to the ideas and new creative solutions to things as we move forward to that,” she said.

She also said the Democrats' environmental agenda would be detrimental to farmers because of proposals to move toward electric vehicles. 

Trump thinks his trade policy will help win blue-collar voters in Minnesota and other battleground states, but Peterson is backing Joe Biden’s plan to eliminate Trump’s tariffs. 

“First thing I want to see is to stop these tariffs. I think it’s been a counterproductive situation,” Peterson said.

When it comes to regulatory policy, Peterson claims he has a stronger record than most Republicans. “Farmers know that,” he told Agri-Pulse, citing his resistance to permanent conservation easements, a farm bill issue.

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Schier said there could be significant agriculture policy impacts if Peterson loses. “You will definitely see the agriculture committee leadership move in a more liberal direction if Peterson loses and is no longer ag committee chair,” he said.

Next in line in seniority on the committee are Reps. David Scott, D-Ga., Jim Costa, D-Calif., and Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio.

The National Farmers Union’s PAC endorsed Peterson in early August. Minnesota Farmers Union President Gary Wertish said it takes a lot of skill to create farm bills that can get passed and work for most of the farmers in the country.

He said voters should look beyond party affiliation and think about how Peterson has fought and continues to fight for the agriculture industry.

A Peterson defeat "really would be huge and that is a concern because (Fischbach) does not have the knowledge and experience of agriculture like Collin does and it would be a tremendous loss,” Wertish told Agri-Pulse.

The more conservative Minnesota Farm Bureau endorsed Peterson in 2014, 2016 and 2018 and decided last week to back him again this year. “It’s really more about what does that person do and not the party," Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap said. "It is so important to have that experience there, to have that knowledge base.”

More than 10 national agriculture groups’ political action committees are considered “top donors” to Peterson this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics

Fischbach has $345,845 cash on hand compared to Peterson’s $1.34 million, according to FEC filings as of July 22.

Endorsements and donations from farm group PACs, however, do not automatically translate into winning, even in a heavily agricultural district such as Peterson’s. 

In a battle for an open seat in Texas 13th District, ag groups backed former cattle lobbyist Josh Winegarner in the July runoff for the GOP nomination, but he lost to former White House physician Ronny Jackson, who pledged to keep pushing Trump's "America First" agenda.

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