Politics

That Minnesota Blue Dog Still Does Hunt

Collin Peterson, the last Democrat who can hold his Trump seat, isn’t giving up

Rep. Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., right, tours Simply Shrimp, which raises saltwater shrimp, with owner Paul Damhof in Blomkest, Minn., last month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

BLOMKEST, Minn. — Rep. Collin C. Peterson shed his sport coat to inspect some shrimp. 

It was 86 degrees on a recent Thursday in the calf-barn-turned-tank room, where the son of two dairy farmers is raising saltwater shrimp in the middle of rural Minnesota. 

A 14-term Democratic-Farmer-Labor congressman, Peterson represents a district President Donald Trump won by 30 points in 2016. At first glance, that’d make him about as out of place as these Pacific white shrimp.

But as one of the founders of the Blue Dog Coalition, Peterson isn’t your typical Democrat. He has opposed abortion and same-sex marriage. He was no fan of Hillary Clinton, but as the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, he has a strong relationship with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi

Peterson’s one of the most conservative Democrats in the House. The  moment he retires, Republicans will likely pick up his 7th District — a heavily agricultural seat that stretches from the southern part of the state all the way up to the Canadian border.

Trump’s popularity here gave Peterson an unexpected scare in 2016: he defeated an underfunded GOP challenger by just 5 points. But even though the same Republican is back for a rematch this year with the president’s backing, Peterson isn’t worried.

ICYMI: As Early Voting Begins, A Look at Minnesota's Uber-Competitive House Races

Doing things his own way

On a rainy day in nearby Willmar, where Peterson toured local companies, every business owner was a Republican — and they let the congressman know it. 

“I voted for Trump and I’ll do it again,” said Harris Duininck, a businessman in the district who’s close to Peterson, and whose son Peterson may try to talk into running for Congress — likely as a Republican.

“He’s always been real business-oriented,” Duininck said of the incumbent, praising his work on behalf of farmers, too.  

Peterson is one of three Democrats remaining in the House who voted against the 2010 health care law. He sided with former President Barack Obama just 46 percent of the time during the eight years he was in office, according to CQ’s Vote Watch. He’s backed President Donald Trump 69 percent of the time so far. 

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 20: Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., right, takes a tour of Simply Shrimp, which raises Pacific white shrimp, with owner Paul Damhof, in Blomkest, Minn., on September 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Peterson, here inspecting shrimp at Simply Shrimp, usually flies himself around the 7th District in his own plane. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

National Republicans have tried to knock off Peterson before, with outside groups spending nearly $5 million against him in 2014. But Peterson prevailed by nearly 9 points and later said those attacks only emboldened him to run again in 2016. 

Dave Hughes, Peterson’s GOP challenger, didn’t have support from the national party the last time. He doesn’t this year either, although Trump tweeted about him in September. 

“He thinks he can win because he came close last time,” Peterson said of his opponent. “He doesn’t realize this is not really about him,” he added, chuckling.

Unlike last cycle, Peterson is doing polling. An Anzalone Liszt Grove survey of 500 likely voters from Sept. 5-10 found him leading Hughes 53 percent to 35 percent. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. 

With $1.3 million in the bank compared to Hughes’ $6,000 at the end of the second quarter, Peterson is planning to do TV, radio and digital advertising. And he’s campaigning.

“I’ve been hiring these young guys to work on the campaign, and they don’t know how to do anything,” he said, complaining that he had to drive himself in parades because his young staffers couldn’t drive a stick shift.

Peterson was venting to business owners at a construction company where a group of male students, and one lone woman, were learning how to build door frames. 

“Actually, the young girls are much more adept than the guys are,” Peterson said, still talking about his staff.

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 20: Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., observes Destiny Stockland use a nail gun, during a program for high schoolers that teaches them a skill, including carpentry, at Marcus Construction in Willmar, Minn., on September 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Peterson observes Destiny Stockland use a nail gun during a program for high schoolers that teaches them carpentry at Marcus Construction in Willmar, Minn. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

With fierce thunderstorms grounding his Beechcraft Bonanza airplane, Peterson had been planning to drive himself two hours to the Twin Cities for a fundraiser that evening. 

But the forecast was still not great, so he called the organizer to say he wasn’t going to make it in person.

“He wasn’t too happy,” Peterson said.  

Staying a Democrat 

Peterson sees a good year ahead for the DFL in Minnesota, and he predicts the Blue Dogs will pick up four or five members nationwide. 

He’s not sure that’s going to be enough to help him get things done in Congress, though.

“It’s still going to be challenging because we’ve probably got more liberals being elected than we are going to have moderates,” he said. 

Even if they disagree on most things, he said Pelosi is “rock solid” on  agriculture — more so than anyone else in leadership of either party. 

“She’s a pretty moderating influence. She’s not somebody who’s pushing people to the left,” he said. “But nobody would ever believe that.”

Despite the gaps between him and the modern Democratic Party, switching parties is out of the question for Peterson. 

“Dwight Eisenhower made our family Democrats because he took away Truman’s farm program,” he said, noting that he and his seven sisters grew up on a farm that saw some hard times.

“I’ve been with these people forever,” he added. “It would break a lot of people’s hearts.”

Peterson said he couldn't bring himself to vote for either nominee in the 2016 presidential election. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Peterson couldn’t bring himself to vote for either major-party presidential nominee in 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Peterson was now driving in torrential rain, looking for the entrance of a steel company he was going to tour. The road was closed.

He’s had offers to be “the secretary of this and that,” he said, recounting how Trump sent a friend of his to talk to him about being an ambassador — to wherever he wanted.

“I said, ‘They don’t know me very well.’ The one thing I hate about politics is going to receptions and dinners, and that’s all ambassadors do,” he recalled.  

Asked what he thinks of the president, Peterson paused. He was navigating his Chevy Silverado over a makeshift dirt road.

“He’s different,” Peterson laughed. “He’s a New York guy, and I’m a rural guy. We didn’t hit it off.” 

Peterson endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. They entered Congress together in 1991 as part of the same class.

And in the general election?

“Well, I don’t really want to talk about that,” Peterson said. Having parked his pickup, he started to open the door to get out. 

Then he closed it again.

“For the first time in history, I didn’t vote in the presidential election,” he said. “I just wasn’t comfortable with either one.”

And with that, it was time to see some steel.

“Do I need my coat in there?” he asked, opting to leave it behind. “Let’s go in and see what’s going on in there.”  

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