Collin Peterson is the last of his kind. The longtime Democratic representative and chair of the House Agricultural Committee hails from Minnesota’s 7th congressional district. President Donald Trump won it by over 30 points, the largest margin of any Democratic-represented seat in the House.
A founding member of the Blue Dog Coalition, Peterson is one of the few old-school conservative Democrats even in his own caucus. With his seat getting redder every cycle and a credible opponent having outraised him, the odds are seeming greater and greater than Peterson might be a goner in 2020.
The fall and rise of the Blue Dog
The Blue Dog Coalition was once known as the bastion of rural, conservative Democrats. This grouping of conservative Democrats comprised 25% of the Democratic House supermajority in 2008. The group was decimated in 2010, however, as longtime incumbents in long-reddening districts lost in droves. It has since grown back to 25 members but it now fits a new mold. Younger representatives like Stephanie Murphy (D-Florida), who melds social liberalism with more business-friendly policies, dominate the caucus.
In many ways, Collin Peterson is a holdover from a bygone era. First elected in 1991, Peterson identifies as a pro-life Democrat and has an “A” rating from the NRA. On the other side, he generally opposes free trade and scores highly among labor union advocacy groups. This blend of social conservatism and fiscal populism has long been successful in rural Minnesota. Times are changing, however, and polarization is more important than ever.
Republican presidential candidates have long been favored in MN-07. George Bush scored double-digit wins in 2000 and 2004, and even John McCain narrowly carried it while Barack Obama romped to an 11-point win statewide. Mitt Romney nearly returned it to the double-digit column for Republicans in 2012. In 2016, Donald Trump blew the windows off when he won it by over 30 points.
Over this same period of time, Peterson’s fortunes have turned the other way. In 2008, Peterson won the seat by nearly 45 percentage points, but this dwindled to a 3 point win in 2018. Peterson hasn’t changed much over the years. He was one of only two Democrats to oppose Trump’s impeachment and has supported Trump’s wall. In an age of increasing partisanship, however, this can only carry you so far in a seat with a Cook PVI score of R+13.
Only one other Democrat, Rep. Ben McAdams of UT-04, represents a seat that has a higher PVI, and Trump only won his seat by single-digits. The question really isn’t a matter of if MN-07 seat flips, but when. Whether it flips before or after Peterson decides to leave office of his own accord is the real question.
A viable challenger
To say that Peterson’s previous opponents had issues is an understatement, but Republicans finally have a viable challenger. The primary has yet to be held, but Republican leaders have coalesced around Michelle Fischbach. Fischbach is a former state senator and become the first woman to serve as Senate President. She most recently served as Lieutenant Governor following the resignation of now-Senator Tina Smith.
Fischbach has the endorsement of both President Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and is almost certain to be the nominee. Her campaign has been strongly pro-Trump. She has pledged to support him on all major issues, including trade and immigration. In Q1 2020, her haul of $228,360 easily bested Peterson’s total of $167,057.
One potential issue Peterson could latch on to is trade. MN-07 is a heavily agricultural district and the Trump tariffs haven’t been entirely supported by all. However, this issue didn’t prevent Kevin Cramer from winning a Senate seat in the adjacent state of North Dakota, so it remains to be seen if this is a wedge Peterson can fixate on.
The race going forward
While other races might be flashier, MN-07 is going to be one of the most important races of the cycle. As rural Democrats have dropped like flies, Peterson remains one of the last lines to that long-running tradition. Minnesota is at risk of losing a congressional seat, meaning this race might not seem to matter too much. As a point of pride for Democrats, however, it can’t be overstated.
Both Crystal Ball and the Cook Political Report have the race as a tossup and it’s quite possible it will remain that way until November. Whether or not Collin Peterson can pull out one less victory has yet to be seen, but there’s no doubt this will be the toughest race of his long career.