Eighth District DFL Rep. Rick Nolan announced on Friday morning that he will retire at the end of his current term in Congress, ending a Washington political career that has spanned several decades — though with a long interruption — and making the already-competitive 8th District even more so, as Republicans look to pick up the increasingly red northeastern Minnesota seat.
In a call with MinnPost on Friday morning, Nolan, 74, said that retiring was one of the hardest decisions he’s had to make, but said it was time to “pass the baton” to the next generation of leaders in the district. He said the main factor in his decision was a desire to spend more time with his family, mentioning his wife, children, and grandchildren, hockey games and school plays. (Nolan’s daughter, Katherine, is currently receiving treatment for lung cancer.)
“It’s time for me to go home and spend more time with them,” he said. “It’s been coming for a long time. I got back into the front line of politics to see what I could do to help with getting things turned around in the district and in the country… There’s just a time and a season for everything.”
Nolan, who lives in Crosby, was first elected to Congress in 1974 as part of the class of young, reform-minded Democratic freshmen nicknamed “the Watergate Babies.” He served three terms representing what was then Minnesota’s 6th District before leaving to pursue work in the private sector.
Nolan returned to Congress in 2013, after winning a 2012 election against freshman Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack. Nolan went on two secure re-election twice, in 2014 and 2016, both times defeating retail heir Stewart Mills in what were some of the closest and most expensive U.S. House races in the country.
In 2016, Donald Trump won big in the 8th District, fueling simmering concerns in the DFL that their longtime northeastern Minnesota stronghold was slipping. Nolan was set to face another difficult re-election this year: Republicans were excited about the recruitment of Pete Stauber, a former Duluth police lieutenant, to run against him.
He also faced a challenge in his own camp: Leah Phifer, a former employee for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is running for the DFL endorsement, emphasizing her stance critical of copper-nickel mining in Superior National Forest — an issue that has become a lightning rod in Minnesota, and one in which some environmentalists began to believe Nolan was in the wrong.
Minnesota’s 8th District had been identified as one of the country’s most competitive races even before Nolan announced his retirement. It now becomes Minnesota’s second open-seat U.S. House race, joining the 1st District, which DFL Rep. Tim Walz is vacating to run for governor.
The lack of a seasoned Democratic incumbent on the ballot is sure to boost the GOP’s confidence it can flip this seat. However, there is a deep bench of DFLers in this part of Minnesota, from young stars to political veterans, who are likely to begin taking a close look at running in the wake of Nolan’s retirement.
Nolan told MinnPost he believes Democrats’ prospects to hold the seat are better than ever, and said he wouldn’t be retiring if he didn’t believe the party had a good chance to keep a good progressive in the seat.
“I think people are going to be surprised how strong a bench we have up in the 8th District,” he said, adding that he believes a dozen viable DFL candidates could run. He mentioned no names but said he is thinking of mayors, state legislators, and city council officials in the district, which spans from Duluth to the Brainerd Lakes area, and from the U.S.-Canada border to the Twin Cities’ northern suburbs.
“I suppose it’s somewhat selfish,” Nolan said of his decision to retire. “But I like to think I’ve given a lot… I just think the prospects for the future are good.”