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If Rep. Collin Peterson loses this fall, it will probably be because the conservative Minnesota Democrat and Agriculture Committee chairman voted in favor of the House’s cap-and-trade legislation.
That said, the coming Republican wave would have to be a tsunami to sweep Willmar businessman Lee Byberg into office.
First elected in 1990 after serving a decade in the Minnesota state Senate, Peterson, 66, hasn’t had a competitive race since the previous Republican wave in 1994.
Beginning with the 1996 contest and continuing after redistricting reshaped his district in 2002, he has won every general election with no less than 65 percent of the vote. Since 2006, his role as leader of the Agriculture Committee has provided a firewall to ward off potential challengers in Minnesota’s 7th district, which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won with 50 percent in 2008 and President George W. Bush carried with 55 percent in 2004.
A poll taken for Byberg in June, the only public polling available in the race, showed Peterson ahead by double digits. Byberg is also contending with Glen Menze, the 2008 Republican nominee who is this year’s Independence Party nominee.
More importantly, Peterson doesn’t expect that his constituents — other than those who have voted against him in the past — feel the same anger stirring up races in much of the country. Unemployment is low in his heavily agricultural district, he said.
“If they didn’t hear all this negative stuff from the national press, if they would’ve been isolated from everything the last three to four years, they wouldn’t have even known anything was going on,” he said. “Nothing’s changed.”
Nonetheless, Byberg, 48, might be able to give Peterson a little scare. Byberg was born in Chicago but grew up mostly in Norway, the son of Christian missionary parents. (That explains his Scandinavian brogue: “I joke with people that I went to Norway to pick up the Minnesota accent,” he said.) He moved back to Minnesota when he was 19 and lived with relatives while he finished his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Minnesota. He now works as vice president of operations at Life-Science Innovations, the parent company of Willmar Poultry Country, where he worked previously. Earlier in his career, he worked as an accountant for one of the firms that became PricewaterhouseCoopers and as an economist for Phillips Petroleum Co.
The cap-and-trade vote may be what resonates most among those who vote against Peterson. Agriculture groups worked against the bill, asserting that it would negatively affect farmers. But the Congressman said he voted for the bill only after four to five weeks of negotiating with Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). Those talks produced some key protections for agriculture, including exempting farmers from some Environmental Protection Agency regulations, removing international land use restrictions that would’ve penalized ethanol and putting the Department of Agriculture in charge of any cap-and-trade regulations that would affect agricultural interests instead of the EPA.
“A lot of people know the only reason I voted for that was Waxman agreed to take my stuff on agriculture. I said at the time I voted for it, that if this was the final bill I’d vote no,” he explained, adding that he didn’t think the Senate would consider the bill.