This story is the fourth installment of “Could She Flip It?,” a series from The Lily about the women running in 2020 who could flip House and Senate seats long held by the opposing party.
Michelle Fischbach was waiting to hear President Trump say her name.
There were thousands of people at the September rally in Bemidji, Minn., jumping up and down in Make America Great Again hats. When Trump began to introduce the state’s slate of Republican congressional candidates, four men — three sitting congressmen and a candidate for U.S. senate — easily hopped over a fence to the stage. Rushing toward the president as he conferred his “full and total endorsement” of her congressional campaign, Fischbach tripped.
She picked herself up, dusted off her black slacks and grinned.
“Look at her,” Trump said to the crowd. “She’s a warrior. I can tell.”
The rally was held in Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District, a well-known electoral anomaly: While Trump won there by 31 points in 2016, the district is still represented by a Democrat. A moderate who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Collin C. Peterson has been the congressman for western Minnesota since 1991. He is so well-respected in the 7th District — a rural area where the farming vote is key — that few seasoned Republicans have ever run against him. Fischbach, a lawyer who is the former president of the Minnesota State Senate and former lieutenant governor, is the most serious challenger that Peterson has faced in decades. With polls showing a tight race, she could dethrone the man known as “the most bipartisan person in Congress.”
“In the past, he has essentially been running against an unknown Republican,” said Tommy Merickel, who has worked on Republican campaigns in Minnesota since the ’70s. “What he’s facing now is a whole different picture.”
The district itself has changed significantly in the last few years, said Merickel. With most people working in agriculture or manufacturing, Trump’s commitment to protect U.S. jobs has resonated. Driving on a two-lane highway between the towns of Battle Lake, population 875, and Perham, population 3,000, Merickel says he’ll pass caravans with as many as 80 cars, semis, and pickup trucks, all waving Trump flags and honking their horns. Fischbach’s campaign has fully embraced the president: On their Facebook cover photo, his picture is as big as hers.
As soon as Fischbach reached the stage in Bemidji, she started snapping pictures of the back of the president’s head. She couldn’t resist, she said: She’s a grandmother from a small town in rural Minnesota. When was anything like this ever going to happen again?
“I got over that fence,” she said, “and there was nothing that was going to stop me.”
Fischbach’s oldest friends describe her as a “down home girl.” She raises turkeys and has dabbled in ice fishing. When a polar vortex rolls through Minnesota — with temperatures dipping below 20 degrees Fahrenheit — she’ll be out knocking on doors.
“You put on a good winter coat and some good winter boots and you just handle it,” she said.
Whenever she can, she’ll retreat to the edge of Lake Koronis near her house to watch the wind whip over the surface. In the middle of winter, the lake looks “mean,” she says — but it calms her down.
Fischbach, 54, married and had her first child while she was a student at St. Cloud State University. After graduation, she and her husband moved to Paynesville, in the ultraconservative Stearns County, which she describes as a “comforting” kind of place where “family values” are everything. They’ve lived there ever since.
Fischbach is careful to say that she didn’t go after a career in politics. Instead, she says, it came to her. She was a stay-at-home mom, serving on the Paynesville City Council, when a seat suddenly opened up in the state Senate midway through a session. Fischbach started getting calls from local Republicans.
“I always tease everyone and say things like, ‘I don’t actually remember saying yes to running. But you guys signed me up with the brochures and signs as if I wasn’t allowed to say no.’”
When she talks about her runs for office, Fischbach often speaks in the passive voice.
“It was decided that I should run for that seat,” she says.
There aren’t many women who run for office in the 7th District, said Merickel. It’s been more than 20 years since a woman challenged Peterson in the general election.
The problem isn’t a lack of female candidates, said Amanda Hinson, who ran in the Republican primary in 2016 — it’s the district’s conservative Republican voter base. Competing for the GOP endorsement, Hinson says she was constantly asked about child care. There were op-eds written in local newspapers, Hinson said: Who would take care of her four young kids when she was off in Washington? (Her primary opponent, who has seven kids, was never asked this question, she said.)
“We are such a conservative high-moral people around here,” said Hinson. “When there is a woman candidate they want to make sure she doesn’t have kids to raise at home.”
Fischbach has such a good shot because her kids are older, said Hinson: She has finished doing what’s expected of her around here as a woman. On her website, Fischbach’s biography specifies that she has two “grown” children.
Those closest to Fischbach still make sure to emphasize that she’s not a “career woman.”
“She’s family-oriented,” said LaVonne Vix, a longtime friend. “Although she’s a woman with a career, it’s not a career that she pursued but one that people wanted her to pursue.”
Fischbach hadn’t even thought about running for Congress, she said, until the calls started up again: Republican leaders needed someone to take on Peterson, they said, and they thought she could win.
The first woman to lead the state Senate, Fischbach has had a historic career in the Minnesota state legislature. She firmly believes that more women should get into politics, she says.
“It’s important for your family,” she says. “It’s important for your kids.”
Peterson’s website does not mention his children, though he has three. Across the district, he is known as the “nice guy” who knows his way around a cornfield. An avid hunter and fisherman, Peterson has decorated the walls of his Washington, D.C. office with stuffed conquests: a goose, a duck, a deer head. To meet with constituents, he regularly flies from town to town, and farm to farm, in his own prop plane, which he is licensed to fly himself.
This folksy reputation has helped keep the 7th District blue. Peterson has support from many who would never consider voting for any other Democrat, said Merickel — and he’s done a lot to keep their trust. In Congress, Peterson is staunchly antiabortion and pro-gun. He is also the only sitting Democratic congressman who voted against Trump’s impeachment. Rather than cast a vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016, he says he didn’t vote for anyone.
The debates between Peterson and Fischbach have been strikingly cordial, with the two rarely attacking each other. Even when the moderator has tried to stir things up, it’s been hard to find issues on which they disagree.
Fischbach’s approach has been to tie Peterson to the Democratic Party — and, by extension, to socialism. Her television advertisements feature Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), two people who show “the direction the Democratic Party is going,” she says.
“People in the 7th District want to protect their American way of life,” Fischbach says.
Fischbach stops short of calling Peterson himself a socialist. “He has associated himself with that party,” she says — so he has to go.
Trump is an odd fit for many in rural Minnesota, said Merickel. After all, this is the land of “Minnesota nice,” where people go out of their way to be kind to one another, a sharp contrast to the name-calling and insults that often come out of the White House. While Merickel, a longtime Republican, supports the president’s policies, he says, he can’t get behind his personality. Many others here feel the same way, he says.
Fischbach has to tread carefully. She refuses to criticize the president for his tendency to say — or tweet — things that aren’t so nice.
“None of us does everything perfectly,” she says.
Fischbach feels “honored” and “grateful” to have the president’s endorsement, she says. In this district, it could be the reason she wins. Four days after the Bemidji rally, a new video appeared on Fischbach’s YouTube channel.
The title? “She’s a warrior.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said that Fischbach attended law school after completing her undergraduate studies. She graduated in 2011. We regret the error.