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Jill Abahsain, 'Bull' Johnson take on Michelle Fischbach in a red 7th District congressional race

Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach is seeking her second term in a district considered a stronghold for her party. Opponents Jill Abahsain of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and Travis "Bull" Johnson of the Legal Marijuana Now Party say discontent with the incumbent and their positions on issues important to the district give them a fighting chance.

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WILLMAR, Minn. — Republican Michelle Fischbach is running for a second term in a congressional district considered to be solid red, and she has a campaign war chest many times bigger than that of her endorsed opponents.

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But Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party candidate Jill Abahsain and Legal Marijuana Now candidate Travis “Bull” Johnson maintain that they have a chance of unseating the incumbent, no different than she had done to 30-year incumbent Collin Peterson.

They argue that Fischbach has done little for her district in her first term, and that they better represent the values of the residents in this expansive, rural district comprising most of western Minnesota.

“I think with my background and work with Planned Parenthood and women’s rights over the years, I was born to run against Michelle Fischbach,” said Abahsain as to her willingness to take on the incumbent. “I have the tools.”

Jill Abahsain
Jill Abahsain
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Abahsain, 68, said she feels the Fischbach campaign is acting as if she has no opposition. By not saying or doing anything, Fischbach has created a vacuum that is letting her get her message out and propelling her, said Abahsain.

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Travis "Bull" Johnson
Travis "Bull" Johnson
Contributed / Nicole Wandrie

Johnson, 51, said he entered the race with no intentions of “tilting at windmills” Don Quixote-style. He believes many in the district are unhappy with Fischbach. He said that whenever he gets the chance to have his message heard that he is anything but a one-trick pony, people find his conservative values in line with theirs.

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U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach
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Fischbach, 56, declined to be interviewed for this election preview, but provided her views as part of a questionnaire from the Minnesota Newspaper Association. She said she is running “because I believe we need to stand up for our western Minnesota values and way of life. I want to make sure we have strong rural communities where we can raise our families, and our children and grandchildren can stay and thrive.”

Her priorities include the economy. She blames spending by the Biden administration and congressional Democrats for fueling inflation.

The Star Tribune reported that Fischbach has raised more than $1.6 million in this election cycle, compared to just over $26,000 by Abahsain. Johnson said he has invested more than $20,000 of his own funds.

Endorsement allows Johnson to run

Johnson said he has never smoked marijuana in his life, but believes everyone should have the “right to make their own choices.” He said he accepted the Legal Marijuana Now endorsement as his opportunity to become a major party candidate and be part of the race. He said he was motivated to run by his concerns following Jan. 6, 2021 — the day of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — and polarization in the country.

“I saw how much the two parties were tearing each other apart, tearing the country apart,” said Johnson. “Nobody was doing what was best for the country, (they were doing) what was best for the parties.”

His top issues are addressing the budget and size of the federal government and helping prevent veteran suicides. He would like to see a national sales tax replace the income tax. He describes himself as a constitutionalist and believes most issues should be addressed at the local or state level.

Congressional District 7 DFL candidate Jill Abahsain met with DFL party members at a rally in New London on September 27. At her left is DLF candidate for state Representative Fred Cogelow of Willmar.
Congressional District 7 DFL candidate Jill Abahsain, left, meets with other DFL party members at a rally in New London on Sept. 27, 2022. At her left are District 16B state representative candidate Fred Cogelow and Abahsain supporter Taya Mergot.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune file photo

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Abahsain recruited to run

Abahsain had unsuccessfully run for a state Senate seat previously, but was called on by DFL supporters to take on Fischbach.

Well aware of Collin Peterson’s long history of representing agriculture, Abahsain said her first response was to point out that she did not know a lot about farming. “Do you think Michelle Fischbach does,” she said her recruiter told her.

She argues for maintaining the coalition of urban and rural congressional members that Peterson was able to keep together for the Farm Bill. She charges that Fischbach and her Republican colleagues are threatening that coalition.

Abahsain said her focus is on working for rural education, health care access and economic development. “I believe in revitalizing rural life, getting the services and infrastructure we need (and) to protect the farm bill,” she said.

Roe v. Wade divides candidates

Abahsain supports reproductive rights and considers it a healthcare issue.

She remains concerned about Fischbach’s vote against accepting the results of the Electoral College for the election of Joe Biden as president as a challenge to the integrity of U.S. elections.

Fischbach is well-known for her pro-life stance. Her husband, Scott, leads the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life.

“Abortion is not health care,” she said in response to the Minnesota Newspaper Association’s questionnaire asking about the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

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Johnson said he is pro-life, but also points out that the constitution does not mention abortion.

“I am a constitutionalist at heart. If the constitution does not give this power or authority to the federal government, then it should belong to the states,” he said.

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He pointed to the differing views on abortion he heard from conservatives who had gathered at a campaign visit he made earlier in Lynd. Citing their different views on abortion and how to define when life begins, he said he asked them: “Why would you want the (federal) government doing that?”

All three candidates support the Second Amendment, but Abahsain said she does not believe people need high-capacity armaments.

“They belong locked up in the armory like they do in Switzerland,” she said.

“New gun laws, which infringe upon the rights of law-abiding citizens, are not the solution to mass shootings,” said Fischbach in response to a question on gun reform in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting.

Abahsain charges that Fischbach has not worked for her district by voting against the infrastructure bill and by not sponsoring earmarks for projects in the district.

Johnson charges that Fischbach has been a career politician. He said he is troubled by political office holders who have not had the hardscrabble experience of owning a business or working.

Challengers know it's hard to beat an incumbent

U.S. Representative Michelle Fischbach chats with Paul Hoffer, Republican party chair for Kandiyohi County, during a campaign rally in Willmar on Sept. 23, 2022.
U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach, right, chats with Paul Hoffer, Republican Party chair for Kandiyohi County, during a campaign rally in Willmar on Sept. 23, 2022.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune file photo

Both challengers acknowledge the uphill battles they face. Abahsain said she is uplifted by the support she hears at campaign events, and that she frequently hears from people in the district who are unhappy with the incumbent. But she admits: “It’s a struggle to get the name out, yes it is.”

Johnson points out that he hears a lot of support as he gets around the district, putting on thousands of driving miles to do so. “The only question is, are we able to touch enough people?” he said.

Johnson, a native of Louisiana, raises livestock near Crookston after having retired from service in the military and working in private industry.

Abahsain grew up in Minneapolis, lived and worked in the Middle East for 20 years as a newspaper columnist and as an instructor until after her husband’s death. She is living in Sauk Centre. She has worked for Planned Parenthood, and has been an English instructor to immigrant workers in workplaces as well as director for a local historical society.

Fischbach lives in Regal and is serving in the House of Representatives. She is a member of the House committees on Agriculture, Judiciary, and Rules. She served as the 49th lieutenant governor of Minnesota and was the first woman to serve as president of the Minnesota Senate.

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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