MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — For the first time in two decades, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson finds himself fighting hard to keep his job and avert a loss that could cost Minnesota one of Congress’ most influential voices on farm matters.

Peterson, the ranking minority member and former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, has represented western Minnesota’s 7th District for nearly 24 years. He hasn’t had a close finish since 1994. Republicans saw an opportunity, though, because it’s one of nine congressional districts held by Democrats that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney carried two years ago. Peterson himself points out that the 7th is also the third-most-Republican district held by a Democrat.

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“Having me at the top of the committee as one of the main players at the table is an important thing for the third-biggest agricultural district in the country,” Peterson said Thursday from his home in Detroit Lakes.

But his Republican challenger, state Sen. Torrey Westrom, said Peterson’s support for the policies of President Barack Obama and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi are costing western Minnesota, which he said isn’t benefiting from how Peterson uses his seniority.

“I will not apologize for not being a D.C. insider,” Westrom said while riding from Alexandria to another event in Sauk Centre.

Nearly $8.6 million in outside money from both sides has poured into the race, ranking it 12th in the country, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Parties and interest groups don’t typically spend much on races they can’t win.

The heavily agricultural district sprawls over 35,000 square miles from the Canadian border nearly to the Iowa state line.

Peterson, 70, a founder of the Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats, chaired the Agriculture Committee for four years until Republicans took control of the House in 2011. He worked closely with its Republican chairman, Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, to shape the 2014 farm bill and nail down votes from both parties to get it approved.

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Westrom, 41, an Elbow Lake businessman, said he’s been a “tireless advocate for agriculture” in his 18 years in the Minnesota Legislature. He was 23 when elected to the House in 1996. He switched to the Senate two years ago. He’s been blind since a car accident on his family’s dairy farm when he was 14, but said he was back to baling hay the next summer.

The Minnesota Farm Bureau and Minnesota Farmers Union both back Peterson.

“We feel it’s crucial that we get Collin Peterson at the table for agriculture in Washington, D.C,” said Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, speaking from his combine while harvesting corn near Garden City. He said losing Peterson’s clout “would hurt Minnesota tremendously.”

Farm Bureau has had a good working relationship with Westrom as a legislator, but there’s no guarantee he would get a seat on the Agriculture Committee, Paap said. But Peterson would be in a strong position to oversee how the farm bill is implemented, he said.

Westrom discounted the significance of losing Peterson’s seniority. He said he’d fight for a seat on the committee and would wield influence as a member of the majority.

“It will not hurt the district,” Westrom said. “I will be a strong, ardent voice for agriculture and rural Minnesota.”

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