In the past two days, a lot of people have heard Minnesotan Republican congressional candidate Dave Hughes’ name for the first time.
That’s because President Donald Trump took time out of his busy schedule to give him a shout-out. Trump’s glowing endorsement, spelling errors included, reads thusly:
“Dave Hughes is running for Congress in the Great State of Minnesota. He will help us accomplish our America First policies, is strong on Crime, the Border, our 2nd Amendmen, Trade, Military and Vets. Running against Pelosi Liberal Puppet Petterson. Dave has my Total Endorsement!”
Hughes is actually trying to unseat Collin Peterson -- not “Petterson"-- who’s a Detroit Lakes Democrat. Peterson has been Minnesota’s congressional representative since before Disney’s Aladdin was in theaters and was a member of the Blue Dog coalition during the early years of the Obama Presidency, a caucus of conservative Democrats that dispensed coveted swing votes on issues like health care and the budget. As far as 2018 politics go, not exactly a liberal lightning rod.
But Trump’s endorsement has rocketed their rivalry into the public eye. (Much to the chagrin of the Australian comedian also named Dave Hughes.)
So who is this Dave Hughes? And why does Trump like him so much?
For starters, there are the similarities between Hughes’ and Trump’s platforms. The retired Air Force vet and self-described “constitutional conservative” lives in Karlstad, a town with an estimated population of a little over 700 people. He says he wants to give his would-be constituents what Trump has been promising them. He’s pro-wall, pro-life, and pro-Second Amendment rights, and he’s had nothing but good things to say about the economy and national security under Trump.
Then again, the endorsement might have less to do with Hughes himself and more to do with the district he so covets. Minnesota is going into 2018 with the most “toss-up” House races in the nation. A thumb on the scales might be all it takes to turn some of those seats red. District 7, a mostly rural stripe on Minnesota’s North Dakota/South Dakota border, seems like it could be ready to flip.
Peterson has been representing District 7 for a long time, but over his tenure, the region's voters have gone more and more conservative. The majority of them voted for George W. Bush twice, followed by John McCain and Mitt Romney. Still, Peterson has stubbornly held his seat, mostly with name recognition and being moderate enough to remain palatable to his constituents.
“Pushing gun control drives people (in my district) crazy, gay marriage, abortion, deficit spending, you name it,” he told the Washington Post in about two years ago. “All of that stuff adds up to be a problem for Democrats.”
Then along came Hughes. Prior to the 2016 election, he was a political nobody. He’d never run for office before, and though his party had given him an endorsement, it came with little assistance from Minnesota’s Republican apparatus and none from the National Republican Congressional Committee. A month out from the election, he’d raised a little over $13,000.
And yet, he came within spitting distance of taking Peterson down, earning just over 47 percent of the vote and losing by just five points. He told the West Fargo Pioneer he filed his candidacy for 2018 as soon as he could.
Hughes’ takeover is far from a sure thing. Inside Elections is predicting the district will “lean Democratic,” while Sabato’s Crystal Ball and Cook’s Political Report call it a “likely” win for Peterson.
But an endorsement from Trump gives Hughes an advantage he didn’t have in 2016: name recognition. If the mention heightens Hughes’ profile enough, Peterson’s longstanding star-power in the district might not be enough to save him.