Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Rep. Rick Nolan will retire

MinnPost photo by Sam Brodey
In a call with MinnPost on Friday morning, Rep. Rick Nolan, 74, said that retiring was one of the hardest decisions he’s had to make.

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.”

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Barbara Boldenow on 02/09/2018 - 11:28 am.

    The Back Bench

    My first concern was if there is a young, strong progressive to fill the opening. I am relieved to read that there are a few. Mr. Nolan, you have been a fine representative for the working class. Thank you.

  2. Submitted by Scot Kindschi on 02/09/2018 - 11:38 am.

    Unfortunately Nolan turned before the annoncement. I lost all respect for him when he teamed with Emmer to sell out the BWCAW.

  3. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 02/09/2018 - 11:43 am.


    But disappointing about probably mining near the BWCA. I doubt anyone who takes his place–Democrat or Republican–will vote differently, though.

  4. Submitted by Tom Karas on 02/09/2018 - 11:52 am.

    progressive opportunity

    I guess I understand the Nolan allegiance to standard pool of potential candidates being established officials. But the opportunity that Leah Phifer brings to the table deserves very close examination if we want deliver a strong progressive voice back to DC. Thanks to MinnPost for detailed coverage of MN politics, keep an eye on Phifer……..

  5. Submitted by Joyce Prudden on 02/09/2018 - 12:02 pm.


    “…some environmentalists began to believe Nolan was in the wrong.” Really? Which environmentalists came to this understanding so late?

  6. Submitted by Tim Smith on 02/09/2018 - 12:32 pm.

    Thank you for

    Serving your district and country. Had to be brutally hard to be away from a child battling a dreadful disease.

    Will be a test to see if an urban like progressive can win a rural area. We all know how that has gone lately..,

  7. Submitted by John Evans on 02/09/2018 - 08:08 pm.

    This is horrible.

    Note to progressives: Winning a battle is only worth it if it helps you win the war, or at least allows you to consolidate and hold on to your gains. Can you win the election with an anti-mining agenda? If you can, great! But if you can’t win the election, the nomination will mean nothing. It’s not a gain that you can consolidate and use for the future.

    Remember, the mine is not the only issue at stake. Congress has plenty of other schemes that will impact your environment, your finances, your family and your community in the future. Cuts to Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security will hurt the range badly.

    Then there’s the war on Iran, which they’re selling exactly the same way the sold the Iraq war 15 years ago, (, but this one will be several times more destructive, deadly and costly.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/10/2018 - 06:23 am.


    Not that many people want to be in Congress anymore. Congressman Nolan in his second tour of duty, was always a bit of a stopgap measure, and a temporary solution. Without him in the race, the seat will be difficult for us to hold, but this looks like a pretty good year for holding a difficult seat with a new candidate.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/10/2018 - 10:23 am.

      Blue Wave

      Generals always fight the last war. In reality, it’s not just generals. Most of us prepare for the last battle when we should be preparing for the next battle. Given that Stuart Mills III was unable to win in 2016, it’s not unreasonable to expect a decent Democrat to hold the seat in 2018. The 4 Missouri legislative special elections this week showed huge turnarounds from Trump 2016 and the margins this week.

  9. Submitted by Anne Uehling on 02/10/2018 - 08:30 am.

    Nolan resigns

    Leah Phifer, running for Nolan’s seat, may have a good chance given Otto’s good performance in the caucus Tuesday evening. The fact Nolan does not mention Phifer and mentions there are others who will be running makes me wonder if the ruling folks at the top of the party aren’t planning to just go to primary and skip the endorsement process?

Leave a Reply