Republican delegates from Minnesota's 7th Congressional District are meeting to endorse a candidate to challenge incumbent DFL Congressman Collin Peterson. Peterson was elected to represent the western Minnesota district in 1990. Since then he's rarely faced a serious challenge. Republicans say this year they intend to make it a race.
Campaigning in the sprawling 7th District has always been a logistical nightmare. Redistricting expanded the 7th. It now covers nearly the entire western side of Minnesota. It's mostly rural, and mostly conservative, and both major parties say they benefit from the redistricting change.
7th District Republican Chair Mitch Thompson says the Republican message will play well. And this year he says, there will be a strong candidate to carry the message.
"I think it's a great improvement because the candidates who want the endorsement this year are high-quality people, well educated, politically astute," he says.
Republican Party insiders say the front-runner for endorsement is state Sen. Dan Stevens of Mora. Stevens moved into the district earlier this month. Other announced candidates are Brad Monson of Detroit Lakes and Leroy Schlangen of Richmond.
7th District Republican Party Chair Mitch Thompson says the challenge will be to portray Collin Peterson as a liberal Democrat.
"Collin Peterson has done a fantastic public relations job getting people to believe he is a conservative Democrat. And really and truly I don't believe he's a conservative Democrat," according to Thompson.
The incumbent has built a reputation as a conservative Democrat. He was a founding member of the Blue Dog Democrats, a conservative political coalition.
7th District DFL Party Chair Lori Bergland Olson says the expanded district fits Collin Peterson like a glove. He's on the House Agriculture Committee. The district is mostly farm country. Bergland Olson says she hopes Republicans try to paint Peterson a liberal.
"I don't think, perhaps, it's going to be as easy a race as in previous years, given that there is new territory, but I don't think Collin has dropped the ball anywhere and therefore they have no ammunition, they have no mud to throw," she says.
Republicans say this year, they will be unified behind a candidate. If that happens, the candidate will still need to attract independent voters to unseat Peterson.
St. John's University political science professor Bob Weber says any challenger faces an uphill battle in the 7th District.
"It's a big district, which simply means in terms of that aspect it's going to be difficult for any challenger to take it away from the incumbent," according to Weber.
In past campaigns Collin Peterson has had an advantage getting to the far corners of the district. He pilots his own small plane. Republican Dan Stevens is also a pilot. He'll take to the air if Republicans endorse him this weekend.
Weber says it's difficult to gauge if Peterson is vulnerable. "He's gone two or three elections where he hasn't had serious opposition. So you don't know how weak he may be. Collin Peterson may be pretty strong, but he also may be vulnerable and there's so much uncertainty out there nobody really knows."
Weber says trying to paint Peterson as a liberal, or running a negative campaign won't work well in the conservative district. He says the Republicans best bet for unseating Peterson is to convince voters the incumbent has become a Washington insider.More from MPR