WASHINGTON – Minnesota's congressional delegation is undergoing a dramatic shift in experience and influence as half the state's members will be new when Congress convenes in January.
Minnesota's five newest representatives are replacing members with 42 years of seniority and several influential committee assignments.
But with Democrats winning control of the U.S. House in last week's election, new opportunities are emerging. U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a veteran western Minnesota Democrat, is poised to become chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, a powerful voice as Congress looks to pass a sweeping farm bill in coming weeks.
"The more seniority you have, the bigger difference you're able to make," said U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a retiring Democrat who was elected to his first stint in Congress in 1974.
Democrat Dean Phillips defeated U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, a five-term Republican who is losing his seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Four Republicans on the panel were defeated as voters handed control of the House to Democrats.
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz was the top Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee before launching his successful gubernatorial bid. The six-term congressman was in line to become committee chairman and had served as a key player in negotiations this year to fix a massive program designed to expand veterans' access to private health care, particularly in rural areas.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who is leaving Congress to become Minnesota's next attorney general, is giving up a seat on the House Committee on Financial Services, where he pressed for passage of his measure that aims to improve credit score fairness, particularly for low-income consumers.
Minnesota's new congressional members will have to find their way in a transformed political landscape, with Democrats sorting out leadership roles in the House as they prepare to take over in January.
First-term lawmakers are not granted high-ranking roles, leaving freshmen to figure out the political landscape.
Phillips, for his part, said that he would be seeking advice from experts and community leaders on which committees to pursue. Republican Jim Hagedorn, who is replacing Walz in southern Minnesota, has expressed interest in serving on the agriculture and transportation committees. Democrat Ilhan Omar, who is replacing Ellison in Minneapolis, said she would be talking with veteran party leaders about where she could make the biggest impact.
Republican Pete Stauber, who is filling Nolan's seat, is seeking a spot on the House Committee on Natural Resources, hoping to be deeply involved in debates over the future of mining.
Nolan said one secret of Washington is how influential a select few congressional leaders are in determining what issues are debated and voted on.
"So having someone powerful or in the leadership was very significant," he said.
Democrat Angie Craig, who will replace one-term GOP U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis in his south and east Twin Cities metro area district, said she wants to serve on the committees overseeing agriculture, transportation and agriculture, and labor and workforce.
Eventually she'd like to focus on making health care affordable, which had been the centerpiece of her campaign.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat whose district includes St. Paul and the east metro, has a chance to become chairwoman of a subcommittee of the influential House Appropriations panel, after serving as ranking Democrat.
The election is also reshuffling the roles of some members of powerful political committees aimed at getting their party's candidates elected.
Ellison is stepping aside as deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, which helped orchestrate Democratic gains in Congress and will turn its attention to defeating President Donald Trump in 2020. Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer is a leading candidate to become chairman the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Minnesota's loss of influence in Washington is greater when accounting for Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken's resignation nearly a year ago, causing the state to lose a seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which confirms Supreme Court justices and other federal judges. Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, who was appointed and just won a special election, has been in office only 10 months.
"Having five freshmen puts you pretty low on the totem pole," said Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute, a nonprofit that annually holds a retreat for Republican members of Congress.
Peterson is already gaining power on the House Agriculture Committee. Last week, he told reporters that he got a call from U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on election night congratulating him and saying, "When you come back here, let's get this farm bill done."
Peterson is adamant that Congress pass the farm bill by the end of the year instead of waiting until Democrats take over in January.
If he takes over the chairmanship, he'll become a bigger voice representing Minnesota on Trump's trade policies with China and other countries that are causing anxiety in some rural areas.
"I don't see any scenario where agriculture is going to be better off than we were before this all started with China," said Peterson.
Maya Rao • 202-662-7433