Longtime incumbent Collin Peterson faces newcomer Torrey Westrom in 7th District
Speaking to a small group gathered at the East Grand Forks American Legion Monday afternoon, Torrey Westrom laid out his platform. The Republican state senator running for Congress wants to build the Keystone XL pipeline, balance the country's bu...
Speaking to a small group gathered at the East Grand Forks American Legion Monday afternoon, Torrey Westrom laid out his platform.
The Republican state senator running for Congress wants to build the Keystone XL pipeline, balance the country’s budget, and repeal and replace what he calls the “Unaffordable Care Act.” But maybe more pointedly, he wants to bring a new face to D.C.
“You don’t change Washington without changing the players at the table,” Westrom said in an interview.
Westrom is challenging 12-term Democratic Congressman Collin Peterson for the right to represent Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District, a large district that includes 38 counties and stretches from the Canadian border nearly all the way to Iowa on Minnesota’s western border.
Peterson hasn’t experienced a close call in years, earning 60 percent of the vote in 2012 even while a majority of the district voted for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. And as Westrom sought to paint Peterson as an “enabler” of Democrat leadership who he said are pushing policies that are hurting the country, Peterson said he’s been able to work with both sides more than almost any of his colleagues.
Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Agriculture, cited the passage of a new $956 billion Farm Bill among his biggest recent accomplishments. And representing a district that relies heavily on agriculture, Peterson said he wants to go back to Congress to make sure the Farm Bill is implemented smoothly.
“Having somebody there who wrote the bill, who’s got the credibility among my colleagues, is going to be invaluable to this district,” Peterson said in an interview. He said passing a highway bill and working on “potentially problematic” regulations like the Waters of the U.S. rule are also priorities. The Waters of the U.S. rule defines which waters in the U.S. fall under jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.
Westrom relied on a guide and a cane to help him make his way through the room at the American Legion last week. Raised on a family farm, he lost his eyesight at the age of 14 in a farm-related accident.
Westrom isn’t shy about his disability. His first campaign ad launched last week leads with the accident, but states Westrom “never lost sight of” values of honest work and living within one’s means.
Westrom said he continued to work on the family’s dairy farm even after losing his sight, and nine years later, he was elected to the state House.
“I don’t back away from challenges,” Westrom said. “You find a way to get things done.”
Elected to the state Senate in 2012, Westrom sits on the Finance Committee as well as the Transportation and Public Safety Committee.
Peterson, a former member of the Minnesota Senate, ran for the U.S. House in the 7th Congressional District three times before defeating longtime incumbent Arlan Stangeland in 1990.
He’s built a reputation as a moderate Democrat in Congress, and was a founding member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a fiscally conservative group of Democrats. He has run against the grain with the rest of his party on issues like gun control and abortion, and voted against the original passage of the Affordable Care Act.
Peterson has voted to change some things about the law since it went into effect, stopping short of a full repeal. He said he supports banning companies from denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions and allowing people to stay on their parents’ plans until they’re 26 years old.
“I think a much more constructive approach to this is to…keep the stuff that’s good, and work on trying to fix the stuff that you think is a problem,” Peterson said.
Westrom criticized Peterson for that stance, arguing that the law needs to be repealed and replaced. He said bans on pre-existing conditions and keeping people on parents’ plans until they’re 26 would be part of a new rewrite.
“When you have a building with such a bad, crumbly foundation, you have to start from the bottom up,” Westrom said. “That doesn’t mean you can’t keep the good parts of the building.”
This year’s race has garnered some national attention, partly due to Westrom’s designation by the National Republican Congressional Committee as a “Young Gun,” marking him as a promising candidate.
Peterson raised $268,000 in the second quarter, and had $717,000 on hand. Westrom raised $232,000 and had $328,000 on hand.
The NRCC has spent $2.1 million campaigning against Peterson, while the Democratic National Congressional Committee has spent $1.3 million against Westrom, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Larry Jacobs, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said despite the money being put into the race and the district’s Republican leanings, he still expects Peterson to return for another term.
“I think his personal following and the way in which he votes, which is conservative for a Democrat, I think puts him in his own league,” Jacobs said. “If he was an ordinary Democrat, we’d be digging a grave for him, politically.”
Still, Minnesota GOP Party Chairman Keith Downey described Peterson as “part of the Democrat machine in Washington D.C.,” and said he’s been in office too long. He cited leased cars for his staffers and gas reimbursements for his plane, criticisms that have been the subject of campaign advertisements.
“He has clearly reached a point as a 20-plus year incumbent that he’s lost touch with the people in Minnesota and (is) more absorbed with the perks of Washington,” Downey said in an interview.
Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota DFL Party, took issue with that characterization.
“(Peterson is) one of those sort of classic politicians who understands his responsibility is to govern in the best interest of the people he represents and not necessarily in the interest of his political party or political bosses,” Martin said.
Peterson has pushed back against political advertisements regarding the leased cars, saying that it’s cheaper than paying mileage to staffers “for driving and wearing out their own vehicles.” He said high transportation costs reflect the large size of his district.
Peterson said his record and experience speaks for itself.
“I think the voters know me and know what I stand for,” Peterson said.
Name: Collin Peterson
Address: Detroit Lakes, Minn
Occupation: Member of Congress
Education: Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration and Accounting, Minnesota State University Moorhead
Relevant Experience: U.S. House of Representatives, 1991 to present, Minnesota state Senate, 1977-1986, CPA, business owner in Detroit Lakes.
Name: Torrey Westrom
Address: Elbow Lake, Minn.
Occupation: Attorney, state senator, small business owner
Education: Bemidji State University, William Mitchell College of Law.
Relevant Experience: Minnesota State House, 1997-2012, elected to the state Senate in 2012.
Click here to see some Q&A grids with the candidates