FERGUS FALLS, Minn. (AP) — The man Republicans are banking on to give longtime Rep. Collin Peterson a legitimate challenge in Minnesota’s massive 7th congressional district can’t see his constituents from across the room, but they can sure see him.
Republican state Sen. Torrey Westrom, who lost his sight at age 14 in a car accident on his family’s western Minnesota dairy farm, has a commanding presence when he’s working the room. His 6-foot-4 frame made it easy for Fergus Falls resident Pam Johnson to flag him down at the Viking Restaurant. His booming voice allowed Quality Circuits Inc. president Wayne Dirkman to hear his questions above the hum of machines at the company plant.
On top of that, Westrom jokes, he’s a better listener than most politicians because he can’t see the voters. These days, he says, he’s hearing calls for change.
“He’s been there 24 years. It’s long enough,” Westrom said of Peterson, a Democratic fixture in a district favoring Republicans elsewhere on the ticket. “If he hasn’t gotten it changed or fixed by now, it’s not going to happen.”
For the first time in memory, national Republicans seem to see potential in northwest Minnesota, too. The House Republican campaign arm is spending substantial money for television ads against Peterson. And that has led to a significant House Democratic TV response.
Voters around the country will send 435 House members to Washington, but relatively few districts are deemed competitive. That’s caused a gusher of money to pour down on districts like Peterson’s.
For now, Peterson’s not sweating it. Asked what his constituents are talking about, he jokes, “That they’re going to get an early frost?” Turning serious, he said some have mentioned the rail shipment delays and the falling price of commodities, but most of them thank him for advancing a massive farm bill.
“Probably the second biggest comment I get is people thanking me for running again, and not just from farmers,” he said. “And the third thing I hear from people is that ‘I’m a Republican, but I always vote for you.'”
The GOP ads criticize Peterson as having “lost touch” with rural concerns. The Democratic spots connect Westrom to a 2011 government shutdown to frame him as inflexible.
“All of a sudden we’ve got more money coming in from those two groups than I have to spend or he has to spend,” Peterson said. “That’s an unusual situation. I didn’t start it. I feel almost bad for my constituents having to put up with it.”
Westrom, 41, is a small-business owner and lawyer who came to the Legislature at 23 and who has never lost an election. He brushes off any suggestion that this campaign is a test run for Peterson’s eventual retirement. He said he had to promise his wife he was “in this to win it.”
Asked if he would take any pleasure in making Peterson, 70, work for re-election, Westrom pointed out when his vision loss ended his promising basketball career, he took up wrestling. He is a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
“I’m very competitive,” he said.
Yet Westrom’s campaign in a district that stretches from the Canadian border almost to Iowa does require a little help. On a recent swing, a campaign aide lent an elbow for the tour of Quality Circuits, which makes electronics that run the GPS of John Deere tractors, among other things.
Pam Johnson, who was having breakfast at the Viking Cafe, said she sought out Westrom to thank him for introducing Emily’s Law, an attempt to lower the age at which juveniles can be certified as adults for serious crimes. Johnson said she votes on issues and not along party lines and isn’t sure who she’ll choose between Westrom and Peterson.
“Torrey has always been great for the area,” she said. “It could be we need a change after all these years, but I don’t know.”
Westrom said that Peterson talks a conservative game when he comes home, but it doesn’t translate when he returns to Washington. Westrom mentioned House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi six times in a three-minute criticism of Peterson’s record.
“You can’t come back and talk against cap and trade and then go vote for it when Nancy Pelosi needs your vote,” Westrom said. “You can’t talk conservative values and then go support Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House and enable her policies to be the Democrat agenda. That needs to be exposed.”
Responded Peterson, “I vote my district.”
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