ST. PAUL - Western Minnesota's 2010 congressional race is under way, even without candidates.
The state Republican Party launches a radio advertising campaign against Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson today, saying the 10-term congressman is out of touch with his district. With Republicans assuming he will run again, it is the fist volley of a campaign in which Republicans promise to unseat Peterson, who has faced only a couple of close races since he first was elected.
A Peterson comment claiming a quarter of his constituents link Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to the Bush administration is invigorating Republicans in the district that stretches from Canada almost to Iowa.
"You take down a building one brick at a time," said Peterson's 2006 opponent, Michael Barrett. "This in and of itself is not going to severely damage him. ... I think it will be a combination of things. It is never too soon to get started."
Barrett, who lost by more than 40 percentage points and said health issues keep him from running again, has received 35 to 40 e-mails from people upset over the Peterson terrorist comment.
Deputy GOP Chairman Michael Brodkorb said the issue will stick to Peterson.
"Collin Peterson is going to find himself going forward in the eye of a storm," Brodkorb said.
More than a dozen western Minnesota radio stations will carry the commercial saying that Peterson's votes do not fit with his agriculture-dominated district, as well as criticizing his terrorist comment.
Peterson said political extremists like those who believe in the terrorist-government connection can take over public meetings, giving that as a reason he does not hold general town hall meetings.
"Really, Collin, 25 percent of your constituents are so out of touch they believe the U.S. government caused 9-11?" the commercial says. "So you won't hold town meetings? They're not out of touch. You are."
Brodkorb said the commercials will cost "five figures," but would not be more specific. He said it would be hard to be in Peterson's 7th Congressional District and not hear the spots, which are scheduled to air into next week, although he left the option open for running them longer.
Peterson, who often returns western Minnesota reporters' calls, responded to a request for an interview with a prepared statement late Wednesday afternoon: "On Monday I apologized for my off-the-cuff remarks on this matter, and I continue to stand by that statement. As for the Republican Party's new ad, I think they can say whatever they want. I'm guessing that my constituents are more interested in cutting the deficit and getting spending under control, and getting a health care bill that works for them and that we can afford."
Peterson is one of many members of Congress who have complained that people with extreme views have hijacked town hall meetings so others cannot express opinions or ask questions.
The Washington-based Politico Web site quoted Peterson as saying: "Twenty-five percent of my people believe the Pentagon and (then-Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld were responsible for taking the twin towers down. That's why I don't do town meetings."
Peterson said he conducts forums on specific topics to prevent extremists from taking over meetings.
The GOP commercial criticizes Peterson's votes on several issues, saying they do not match the will of people in his district.
"I think it is pretty difficult for him to justify some of those votes," Brodkorb said, emphasizing a recent one in which Peterson voted for an anti-global warming measure. "A town hall meeting is an opportunity for him to explain his position."
Peterson says he used his position as House Agriculture Committee chairman to make the global warming bill better for farmers.
Several high-profile Republicans are considering running against Peterson, Brodkorb said, refusing to name names.
Republicans have not been successful against Peterson, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress. He has served in the House since 1990, and since 1996 has received 65 percent to 72 percent of the vote in his elections every two years.
The radio commercial itself may not damage Peterson, Barrett said, but "it is going to linger."
Independent voters will decide Peterson's fate, Barrett said, since there are more of them than either Democrats or Republicans in the 35 counties the 7th Congressional District touches.