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Democrats Bank on Peterson Sticking Around

Minnesota's 7th District is wondering if Peterson will retire. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

“Everyone’s happy.”  

Do those sound like the words of a congressman on his way out the door? Coming from Minnesota Rep. Collin C. Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, it’s hard to tell.  

When CQ Roll Call asked Peterson if he was planning to run for re-election, he said, “Yeah, everything’s good,” followed by, “Everyone’s happy.” It might have sounded vague, but a Democratic source confirmed Peterson's positivity means he’s running.  

No stranger to the retirement watch list, Peterson, 70, has reason to be coy. His conservative district was a top GOP target last cycle , when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee amped up its spending on his behalf just two weeks before Election Day.  

In a wave year that found House Republicans banking a historic majority, Peterson still defeated state Sen. Torrey Westrom  by almost a double-digit margin.  

Republican sources acknowledge taking his 7th District seat would be difficult, if not nearly impossible, unless he retires. And whether he will is anyone’s guess. “He’s a maverick,” said one Minnesota Republican. “He keeps his own counsel,” added Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.  

Peterson raised only $128,000 in the first quarter. That may not be much for a 13-term incumbent and ranking committee member, but it’s not necessarily a sign he’s on his way out . This time in 2013, when the same retirement rumors were swirling, he’d only raised about $165,000. He didn’t announce he was getting in the race until the following March. And he has $151,000 in cash on hand.  

Two Republican sources in Minnesota speculated that attacks on Peterson last cycle may actually have emboldened the Detroit Lakes-area Democrat to run for another term in 2014. If the GOP “laid off him” this cycle, said one Republican lobbyist, “he might retire.”  

But even if Republicans go all-in against him, there are doubts about whether Peterson is up for another competitive campaign, let alone another term in a divided Congress. Speaking in Western Minnesota last month, Peterson lamented, "There's hardly anyone left in the middle."  

“For those who know him, there’s a real sense that it’s not worth it,” Jacobs said.  

Still, Peterson is a survivor. When Mitt Romney won the 7th District by 10 points in 2012, Peterson carried it by more than 25 points. As Democrats in red states took a beating last fall, Peterson topped Westrom by nearly 9 points.  

Beating Peterson is likely to be even harder in a presidential election year, when Democratic turnout is typically higher and given he holds office in a state that hasn't voted for a Republican for president since 1972. If Peterson does want to step aside, a presidential year affords the party the best shot of keeping his seat — and if he leaves, it's likely they'll lose it.  

Republicans have an advantage in the sprawling farmland district, but as a conservative Democrat, Peterson has always been able to defy the political tilt of his home turf. CQ vote studies show Peterson supported President Barack Obama just 20.7 percent of the time in 2014 and so far this year, compared to an average of 82.7 percent for House Democrats.  

Peterson’s position on the Agriculture Committee has been a particular selling point. “People understand that I was able to get Nancy Pelosi to support the farm bill even though she has no farmers in her district,” he told CQ Roll Call last year .  

At least two Republicans could challenge Peterson, and many more would likely enter the field if it were an open seat. Last cycle, Republicans groomed Westrom — a 2014 National Republican Congressional Committee Young Gun  — for the race, but more importantly, to introduce himself to the district in the case of Peterson's retirement.  

Westrom, the first blind member of the Legislature, is up for re-election to a four-year term in the state Senate in 2016. In an interview with CQ Roll Call, the former candidate deflected questions, saying, “It’s too early to tell” if he'll run for Congress. A Peterson retirement, Westrom admitted, “would certainly change the dynamic.” (Peterson said he heard Westrom won't be trying again.)  

Minnesota businessman Scott Van Binsbergen contemplated a challenge to Peterson last cycle. The former staffer for retired Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn., confirmed to CQ Roll Call after this post was published that he is eyeing another bid. He said he has spoken with the NRCC.  

Related: Peterson’s Greatest Challenge Yet, but GOP Still Looks to 2016 Exclusive: NRCC Chairman Reveals Top Targets for 2016 The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.