Torrey Westrom has some notable firsts to his name. He is the first Minnesotan to win the Medal of Courage from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, for example, and is thought to be the first blind member of the Minnesota legislature. If things go his way in November, he could become the first Republican in nearly a quarter-century to defeat Collin Peterson, the Democratic incumbent running for reelection in the state’s seventh congressional district.
His Republican challenger, Westrom, a state senator and attorney from Elbow Lake, Minn., is hoping that Peterson’s electoral hot streak comes to an end before his own does. Peterson, 70, has held the seat since 1991; Westrom, 41, hasn’t lost an election since he first ran for the state house at age 23. Peterson has managed to easily fend off challengers in the past, usually raking in about two-thirds of the vote, but Westrom poses a more serious threat.
First, the rural district’s political makeup is heavily in the Republican’s favor. The Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index, which compares local presidential voting patterns to national trends, rates the seventh district as R+6, one of the most lopsided partisan skews in any district, Republican or Democratic, held by a member of the opposing party.
Second, Peterson is increasingly falling out of step with his district, as Westrom aims to highlight. Peterson bucks his party from time to time, most notably by voting against Obamacare. Only 34 House Democrats did so, and of those, only four remain in the House and are running this cycle. That vote has helped Peterson survive in his relatively conservative district, but Westrom and Republicans argue that the Democrat’s actions don’t match his rhetoric, and that his recent votes on Obamacare position him no longer as a detractor of the law but as a defender.
“He can talk a conservative-Democrat game out here, but it doesn’t match his walk in Washington,” Westrom told National Review Online during the Box Car Days parade held over Labor Day weekend in Tracy, Minn., not far from Walnut Grove, where children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up “There’s a disconnect.”
Peterson has said that he’d vote against Obamacare if the bill were before the House today, but he hasn’t gone so far as to vote for repealing it. He alternates between knuckling under to the Democratic leadership, which resists revising the law, and spurts of cooperation with Republican-backed efforts to pare it down. Even then, Peterson admits that at times he has sided with Republicans for political reasons — he did not want to give them “ammunition to shoot at me” — especially if he knew the bill had no chance of moving forward.
Minnesotans don’t like what they’re getting from Obamacare so far, Westrom says, and they are worried about how small businesses will be affected when the law’s various new regulations and mandates kick in later this year. “This next wave of Obamacare isn’t going to be better — it’s going to be worse,” he warns from the bed of the campaign’s pickup truck at the parade, over the noise from the local cheerleading squad in the float ahead.
Westrom also vows to take on other issues on which Peterson, he says, has fallen short, including the national debt and onerous Environmental Protection Agency water-quality regulations that impose unnecessary burdens on farmers. He says he’ll push hard for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
But even as he paints the Democrat as a water carrier for President Obama and Nancy Pelosi, Westrom knows that knocking Peterson off will be no easy task. There’s a reason Peterson has represented the district for this long: He served as chairman of the House Agricultural Committee and is currently the ranking minority member, a fact that carries considerable weight in the rural district. Westrom knows that, and he makes sure to tout his own agricultural bona fides, voicing his support for the most recent farm bill and highlighting his upbringing on a dairy farm.
It was on that dairy farm that Westrom lost his eyesight in a car accident at age 14. He was back to tossing bales of hay a few weeks later, and then took up wrestling. He enjoyed a successful high-school career on the mat and in 2012 was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and awarded its Medal of Courage. In the 2000s, he was appointed to a federal advisory panel related to return-to-work issues for people with disabilities.
Westrom half-jokes that his condition has made him “a good listener,” which has served him well working with Republicans and Democrats in St. Paul, as well as with constituents and potential voters. Listening to those potential voters requires that he put in a great deal of mileage: The district is unusually large, about the size of South Carolina, and stretches from the northern tip of Minnesota to just short of the Iowa border.
While many analysts still have the race as “leans Democratic,” that’s just one rating away from “toss up,” and Westrom’s history of beating longer odds than that has him optimistic that he will be moving to Washington soon.
— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.