ST. PAUL — Five Republican hopefuls are set to face off in Minnesota's GOP primary contest Tuesday, Aug. 11, in hopes of becoming the candidate to take on three-decade incumbent U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson.
The outcome could set up a third-round rematch or advance a former state senator and lieutenant governor whose candidacy flipped the 7th Congressional District contest to a "toss-up" heading into November. Or if his ad strategy pans out, a third candidate will get to make his case for advancing a doctor to give Congress a colonoscopy.
Former Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach enters the primary as the favorite to clinch the Republican title after securing endorsements from dozens of Minnesota state lawmakers, the GOP, U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and President Donald Trump. Fischbach also brings to the table more than $1 million raised ahead of the primary.
But Dave Hughes, a retired Air Force major, said he has a better shot at unseating Peterson after twice challenging him and coming within four and five points of Peterson in 2018 and 2016, respectively. And Noel Collis, a gastroenterologist, is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into an ad campaign attempting to win over voters before Tuesday.
Jayesun Sherman, a pastor and teacher from Windom, and William Louwagie a Marshall farmer also are vying for the GOP spot on the November ballot.
With Trump up for reelection this year, the largest field of competitors yet has emerged to run in the 7th District.
The district spanning almost the entire western side of the state gave Trump a 30 percentage point lead over Hillary Clinton in 2016. No other congressional district represented by a Democrat posted higher levels of support for the president.
University of Minnesota Morris Political Science Professor Tim Lindberg said Fischbach's profile in the state, as well as her war chest and campaign organization, should give her a sizeable advantage heading into next week. And while Hughes has made the case that he should get a third shot at taking on Peterson, Lindberg said GOP voters likely won't back someone who's lost twice.
"It’s hard to argue if you’re supporting Hughes that he’s a better candidate than Fischbach who has better name recognition, more money and is in the district that should be in Republican hands by now," he said.
Fischbach received the GOP endorsement during a May virtual convention on the eighth ballot, with the vote breaking 65% in her favor and 35% in support of Hughes. But Hughes said the result would've been different if a former Fischbach campaign staffer hadn't jammed Hughes' phone line by calling him hundreds of times during earlier county-level conventions.
The staff member last month pleaded guilty to harassing Hughes in Kittson County court. He left the Fischbach campaign after the incident and Fischbach told Forum News Service that she wasn't aware of the interaction at the time. She said the issue now remains between the former staff member and Hughes.
Fischbach said her campaign had worked to unite Republicans in the district around her bid and had started looking ahead to the general election after building up a strong fundraising and organizing structure. And she said she felt confident that the primary would uphold the results of the endorsing convention.
“The candidates who are running, they lost in the endorsement process and I guess they can’t accept that,” Fischbach told Forum News Service. “We’re confident that we’ll win the primary and move on to the general."
Fischbach's entry into the race caused national race watchers at The Cook Political Report and Sabato's Crystal Ball to shift predictions about the district from a "leans Democratic" designation to a "toss-up."
But Hughes said the pandemic has forced technology issues that created an inaccurate result at the endorsing convention and hindered delegate participation in other events. And he said the primary could paint a clearer picture of what District 7 voters want.
"When they went ahead and endorsed Michelle and said, 'Yep, she's our candidate and it's all great,' it's just not a valid statement. It really isn't and a lot of people in western Minnesota agree with me," Hughes said. "We will be 100% clear who the Republican on the ballot is to face Collin Peterson as a result of the primary this Tuesday."
Meanwhile, Collis unsuccessfully challenged Peterson in 1992 and this time around has put $700,000 into the campaign to run ads in the district saying voters need to send a doctor to Congress to give Washington a colonoscopy.
“I’m positioned much differently because I’m an outsider," Collis said. "(Fischbach's) got the support of the establishment and the career politicians but we believe right now what we're hearing is we have the support of patriotic people that believe in what's right and wrong."
The state GOP on Thursday filed a complaint with the attorney general against Collis, alleging his campaign was fielding robocalls to Republican voters in violation of state law.
Peterson this week offered a defense of his long record in Washington and said he had often broken with the Democratic party line to support policies that were in line with the district. And he touted his record as the House Agriculture Committee Chair in passing the 2018 Farm Bill, getting COVID-19 relief funds for producers and passing bipartisan compromises.
“There aren’t many committees that operate like this, most of them are partisan. They don’t even talk to each other,” Peterson said Wednesday during a virtual Farmfest discussion. “I’m proud to have the most bipartisan record in Congress, in either party, and I will continue to do that in the future if I’m honored to be reelected one more time to the 7th District.”
Peterson will face two DFL primary challengers — Stephen Emery and Alycia Gruenhagen — on Tuesday.
The winners of the Republican and Democratic primaries, along with the winner of the Grassroots - Legalize Cannabis Party primary, will move on to the General Election to take on Legal Marijuana Now candidate Slater Johnson.