ST. PAUL — Candidates vying to represent Minnesota's vast 7th Congressional District clashed over agriculture policy issues and Trump administration approvals of ethanol waivers during a virtual WCCO Radio debate Thursday, Sept. 10.
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-MN7, and Republican challenger Michelle Fischbach, a former lieutenant governor and state senator, split on the impact ongoing trade wars had had on western Minnesota's farmers and offered distinct explanations for the value they could offer voters if elected.
The Thursday meeting marked the candidates' first head-to-head debate of the campaign season.
The 7th District race is viewed by national politicos as a likely tossup and political groups supporting each candidate have promised to pour millions of dollars into the state to affect the result. President Donald Trump carried the district by more than 30 percentage points in 2016, and Peterson managed to edge out a GOP competitor that year and in 2018 to keep his seat.
Peterson, a moderate Democrat, and Fischbach voiced agreement around their opposition to state executive orders aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota.
One of the starkest contrasts between the candidates came over their response to Trump's trade war and tit-for-tat tariff fights with China.
Peterson said the U.S. did need to step in to ensure China would abide by terms of its trade deals but should've launched that effort with allies at its side. And he blasted Trump's approach.
"There's no question it has not worked," Peterson said. "These tariffs have not been successful. What we need to do is work with these other countries and put pressure on them, all of us together."
Fischbach, meanwhile, defended the president's strategy and said the U.S needed to take a stricter tack in responding to China.
"President Trump is taking a strong stand against China. The communist government of China proved to be an untrustworthy actor," Fischbach said, supporting the tariffs launched on China and pushing for broader trade with other partner countries.
Asked about small refinery waivers and their impact on area farmers and ethanol processors, Peterson also criticized the Trump administration's use of the waivers under the Renewable Fuel Standard. The Renewable Fuel Standard dictates the volume of renewable fuels that needs to be blended into the U.S. transportation fuel supply each year. And it can provide an additional market for farmers.
Peterson said he'd proposed legislation to force answers around how the waivers get approved. Fischbach said the Trump administration had taken positive steps in approving year-round E15 fuel and instructing the EPA to reject dozens of “gap year” small refinery exemption applications.
As part of their closing arguments, the pair also made their cases for why voters should put them in office. Fischbach said she could provide a voice more aligned with the increasingly Republican district while Peterson defended his record and said he had a unique position in the national agriculture policy space, as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
"Minnesota's 7th District deserves a strong conservative voice in Congress and we need to make sure that rural Minnesota moves forward into the future and that's what's going to be the difference," Fishbach said.
Peterson said that during his nearly 30 years in office, he'd supported policies he thought his district would agree with no matter what party they came from and planned to do that again if reelected.
"I don’t see myself as a partisan. I see myself as an American. And what I do is I’m a representative," Peterson said. "I go to D.C. and I represent my district. If my district is out of tune with my party, I don’t care. I’m going to represent my district and let the chips fall where they may.”