BRAINERD, Minn. — Collin C. Peterson is the last thing keeping Minnesota’s 7th District blue.
Democrats are always worried that the 13-term congressman is going to retire. Because if he does, his heavily agricultural district will almost certainly send a Republican to Congress.
But Peterson, one of the original and last surviving Blue Dog Democrats in the House, is giving no hints of slowing down. In fact, the 72-year-old says he’s enjoying Congress more these days, which likely comes as good news to Democrats already looking to minimize House losses in the 2018 midterms.
“As long as I think I’m making a difference, I’ll probably keep going,” Peterson said in an interview last week at a fish fry for his Democratic-Farmer-Labor colleague, 8th District Rep. Rick Nolan.
Peterson said he’s had a better time in Congress the last couple of years because his attitude has changed slightly.
“I lightened up a little bit,” Peterson said. “I just figured there’s so much stuff I can’t do anything about anyway, so I just pay attention to what I can do something about and don’t worry about the rest of it.”
Two years ago, it wasn’t guaranteed that Peterson would even be in Congress for another couple of years. Republicans spent $9 million trying to knock him off during a strong year for the GOP nationally. But Peterson survived — by nearly 9 points.
And those 2014 attacks actually may have emboldened him to run again in 2016.
Opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage, Peterson fits with his conservative district. While Mitt Romney carried the 7th District by 10 points in 2012, Peterson won it by more than 25 points. He’s sided with President Barack Obama on just 46 percent of votes, compared to 86 percent for the average House Democrat, according to CQ’s Vote Watch.
Republicans, Peterson said, were mad that their leaders tried to take him out last cycle.
“I was probably the main guy they could work with,” he said.
He said he knows of at least 10 Republicans who stopped paying their dues to the National Republican Congressional Committee to protest the committee’s efforts to unseat him in 2014. So he’s not surprised he faces an underfunded challenger this year.
“Walden decided it wasn’t worth going after me,” he said, referring to NRCC Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon.
Peterson told the crowd at the Nolan fish fry that his opponent had raised $12,000 and had $2,000 in the bank. “I’m campaigning hard, and I might make it,” he joked.
“So Rick, you’ve just gotta survive this one, and then you’re home free,” he told Nolan, who’s facing a competitive rematch against businessman Stewart Mills.
Peterson’s presence at a campaign event like this was itself rather remarkable. By his own admission, he doesn’t attend a lot of events like this. (“I’m here because I believe in him,” he said of Nolan.) And his strange political bedfellows were on full display.
He was seated at the front of the room next to Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Across the table was former Vice President Walter Mondale, a progressive who served under President Jimmy Carter.
And then there was Nolan, himself, another member of the CPC and an ally of Peterson’s on the Agriculture Committee.
“He’s just a little more liberal than I am,” Peterson said, addressing the walleye-eating crowd, and looking to his left where Nolan sat grinning.
Nolan jumped in. “But we were the two Bernie supporters!” he shouted.
“Yep. I was for Bernie,” Peterson responded. “I was feeling the Bern.”
That Minnesota’s northern congressmen backed Sanders, the Vermont independent and self-described Democratic socialist, surprised many outsiders. Both Nolan and Peterson represent blue-collar and increasingly conservative districts. But they both pledged to back the candidate their districts chose in the party caucuses. Both the 7th and 8th districts voted for Sanders in large numbers because of his populist, anti-trade message.
Flocking to Trump
Voters here are now flocking to Donald Trump for similar reasons. The GOP presidential nominee is expected to carry both the 7th and 8th districts.
Hillary Clinton may be against the Trans-Pacific Partnership now, but it’s too little too late, Peterson suggested. “Bill Clinton passed NAFTA. They haven’t forgotten that,” he said.
Every four years, the high school students in Peterson’s hometown vote in a mock presidential election.
“Normally, the kids will mirror the election. They voted 285-117 for Trump,” Peterson said. “I was shocked. I knew he was ahead, but I didn’t know it was anything like that.”
“Some people say, you know, ‘You were Trump before Trump existed.’ So I don’t think it affects me,” he said.