PAYNESVILLE, MN – In the midst of a difficult harvest slowed by muddy fields, Jeff Ampe wasn’t thinking much about elections or impeachment. When prodded on his congressman, he’s all positive: Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, he says, has done “a good job for agriculture, standing up for us all the time.”
Still, ask the central Minnesota farmer whether he’ll vote next year for Peterson or his likely Republican opponent, former state senator Michelle Fischbach, and he takes a long pause to consider.
“That’s a tough one,” Ampe said. “I always voted for Collin. And I always voted for Michelle. So I don’t know how I would.”
Ampe's indecision shows how tough things are for Peterson, a 75-year-old conservative Democrat who has defied political trends and Donald Trump to hold on to his increasingly Republican rural district. The chair of the House Agriculture Committee, Peterson has relied on his influence on farm policy, his willingness to buck his party and his accessibility to win votes in a district Trump carried by a whopping 31 percentage points.
But with growing polarization in Washington and an impeachment probe forcing partisans to their corners, it is increasingly difficult for politicians like Peterson to survive behind enemy lines. His chairmanship and agricultural credentials may no longer be enough. And as he's pounded by outside groups for an impeachment inquiry he does not support, he must weigh whether he's willing to keep at it.
Peterson has said he won’t decide whether to run again until January or February, He was one of two Democrats who voted against opening the impeachment inquiry, and ridiculed the hearings as a “media circus” in one of his weekly newsletters last month. He lists himself as “undecided” on how he'll vote on articles of impeachment. He declined to be interviewed.
The congressman's once-solid margins have been narrowing in recent elections as the 7th District — which stretches from the Canadian border almost all the way down to Iowa — has become redder. He beat Republican Dave Hughes by just 4 points in 2018.
Though Hughes is trying again, Fischbach presents a bigger problem. Recruited personally by Rep. Tom Emmer, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee and a fellow Minnesotan, Fischbach has locked in establishment support. U.S. House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy has endorsed her.
She’s well known in Minnesota politics from her time in the state Senate, which included two stints as its president. And in a district where abortion is a key issue, her family is prominent in the anti-abortion movement; her husband, Scott Fischbach, is executive director of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. Her mother, Darla St. Martin, is co-executive director of the National Right to Life Committee. While Peterson has always been in the anti-abortion camp, Fischbach said his record isn't as strong as it once was.
Republicans now consider Minnesota's 7th District one of their best opportunities to pick up a seat in 2020.
The GOP strategy has been strikingly clear: remind Republican voters that Peterson is a Democrat.
Fischbach has linked Peterson to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, noting he voted to make her speaker. She’s also blamed him for not forcing a House vote yet on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a long-stalled trade deal widely backed by farm groups.
“If he is the all-powerful ag chair, then he needs to be standing up and banging on the table and going to his good friend Speaker Pelosi and saying, ‘We have to do this. This is not something we can put off,’” Fischbach said in an interview.
The American Action Network, which is tied to the House GOP leadership, launched a $500,000 anti-impeachment ad campaign against Peterson in November. The NRCC has created an anti-Peterson website that accuses him of taking marching orders from Pelosi and Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minneapolis progressive who’s another lightning rod for conservatives. Peterson has said very little about Omar publicly.
Fischbach raised $100,000 in her first four weeks in the race, a respectable start. Peterson ended the third quarter with over $900,000 in cash, mostly from political action committees, many tied to agriculture.
A sampling of voters along the main streets of Payneville and Litchfield, a pair of regional centers in the district, found widespread opposition to the impeachment probe. Residents often expressed disgust in barnyard terms, and few felt it was worth bothering to follow the proceedings.
At a recent Minnesota Farm Bureau meeting in a Minneapolis suburb, several 7th District farmers said they’d hate to lose Peterson’s clout atop the Agriculture Committee, where he’s been an influential voice for their interests even in years when Democrats were in the minority. Though the Farm Bureau leans Republican, it’s happy to work with Democrats like Peterson who it considers friends of agriculture.
“Collin has been a champion of reasonableness for the sugar industry,” said Marc Stevens, who identifies as “quite conservative” and grows sugar beets and other crops near Montevideo. “So barring a large change in his philosophy I’ll support Collin.”
Nathan Collins, who grows corn, soybeans and alfalfa near Murdock in Swift County, said he appreciates Peterson’s willingness to listen to farmers. But he said “life issues” such as abortion are most important for him, and he wants to see who best reflects his values.
Dan Lippert, who raises lambs near Blomkest in Kandiyohi County, said Minnesota farmers have been fortunate to have such a well-connected representative. But he declined to say how he’d vote in a Peterson-Fischbach race.
“I think we’re really lucky,” Lippert said. “We have two good candidates. I think either one could be a good representative for agriculture.”
A Peterson-Fischbach matchup also posed a dilemma for one of the relatively few Democrats in Paynesville, where Old Glory waves from every lamppost downtown on Washburne Avenue.
Real estate agent Patrick Flanders understood Peterson’s vote against the inquiry, even though he sees Trump as “an embarrassment” who ought to be impeached. And yet he likes Fischbach and considers her a friend — he even sold her a house once — so he didn’t want to say which way he’d vote.
“I’m not going to say anything bad about her,” Flanders said. “I don’t have anything bad to say about her.”