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What Rick Nolan’s retirement means for the race in Minnesota’s 8th District

Though Nolan’s reasons for hanging it up were understandable the timing of his announcement surprised people throughout the district.

Rep. Rick Nolan said he hopes to spend more time with family, and he perhaps didn’t have the appetite for another tough campaign slog.
MinnPost file photo by Paul Walsh

Rep. Rick Nolan made the phone rounds on Friday morning to deliver to allies and supporters an unexpected message: he plans to retire from Congress at the end of his current term.

“He gave me a call this morning,” CD8 DFL chair Justin Perpich told MinnPost on Friday afternoon. “I wasn’t expecting that to be what he was going to tell me. … I think it caught a lot of people off-guard.”

Though Nolan’s reasons for hanging it up were understandable — he said he hopes to spend more time with family, and he perhaps didn’t have the appetite for another tough campaign slog — the timing of his announcement surprised people throughout the district.

Since Friday, a group of potential DFL candidates has emerged with hopes of picking up the party’s endorsement and keeping this seat — which has been represented by a Democrat for all but two of the last 70 years — as blue turf.

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But Republicans believe things may be changing: The 8th strongly preferred Donald Trump in the 2016 election, and Republicans have made gains here in state Legislature contests in recent years. Nolan’s exit from the ballot has Republicans salivating at the chance to finally pick up a seat they’ve long wanted.  

The CD8 race has, in the past, been a top priority for Democrats’ and Republicans’ national organizations. Nolan’s announcement fundamentally changes the political landscape in northeastern Minnesota with just nine months to go before Election Day.

Navigating the endorsement

There was no small amount of hand-wringing among Democrats on social media in response to Nolan’s announcement, with many shrugging and conceding the party’s chances to hold CD8 had been lost.

But Nolan maintained that he would not be relinquishing his seat at this time if he didn’t believe Democrats had a good chance of holding it. He argued the prospects for a DFL candidate in the district are stronger than they’ve ever been: “I think people are going to be surprised how strong a bench we have up in the 8th District,” he said.

He declined to name anyone he believed could be a successful candidate, but said there are many who have shown they can win tough elections and govern effectively. “I’d say there’s probably a dozen that come to mind,” Nolan said. “Just about every one of the Democratic senators and representatives, and mayors, and city council members.”

Democrats in Minnesota and in D.C. believe the loss of an incumbent makes it harder for them to hold this seat, but not impossible, and they still like their chances. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats’ campaign arm, said his group considers CD8 a Democratic seat.

“That certainly will not change in 2018,” Luján said in a statement. “We look forward to electing another Democrat to represent the hardworking people of northern Minnesota, who can carry on Rick’s legacy.”

But Nolan’s legacy on one issue that has become this region’s lightning rod — copper-nickel mining — presents a more immediate concern for Democrats in CD8, as they begin to consider a successor to the three-term incumbent.

Nolan had lost support among environmentalists for working to undo a decision from the Obama administration in 2016 to deny mineral leases held by the company Twin Metals near Superior National Forest, and to set in motion a 20-year moratorium on mining exploration and activity in those lands, which are near the protected Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness.

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The incumbent’s public efforts on this cause — which included appearances with pro-mining Republican members of Congress at Twin Metals’ Ely headquarters — were enough to draw him a challenger for the DFL endorsement, Leah Phifer, who argued Nolan was out of step with the district on mining.

Phifer’s challenge was seen as a sign that the district’s tenuous DFL coalition between environmentalists and pro-mining organized labor was falling apart. The victory of gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Otto in the CD8 caucus preference ballot last week was seen as another sign of the influence of environmentally minded Democrats in the activist base, which will decide who gets the party’s endorsement for the congressional race.

The DFL endorsement process, and any primary, could be particularly contentious and messy over mining issues, and could lead to some intense debates and attacks within the party’s field of hopefuls.

CD8 DFL chair Perpich seemed to welcome what could be a rough endorsement battle on the DFL side. He maintained that voters here are not “one-issue” type folks. “If you resonate, you can do fine.”

Meanwhile, Republicans believe mining-centered party infighting only helps the GOP’s chances to flip the seat. A DFL candidate more aligned with the progressive grassroots on mining, some Republicans believe, could be what pushes many longtime DFLers to finally vote GOP on the congressional ballot.

DFL’s ‘deep bench’

The “deep bench” that Nolan predicted did not take long to materialize in the hours and days following the congressman’s announcement to retire. Several Democrats moved quickly to state plans to consider or rule out a campaign to succeed him in Congress, offering a rare, relatively clear early look at a field of candidates for a newly-open seat.

Already in the race is Phifer, the 31-year-old college professor and former FBI and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement employee, who has been running since October. Her camp believes her environmentally-focused message resonated at last week’s caucus meetings, but her weak fundraising leaves more than enough room for more DFL candidates to gain traction in the race.

Kirsten Hagen Kennedy, the DFL mayor of North Branch, announced a run on Sunday night. She attended this year’s State of the Union as Nolan’s guest.

Still mulling bids are several young Democrats. Joe Radinovich, a 31-year-old native of Crosby who ran Nolan’s 2016 campaign, has said he is thinking about a run for his former boss’ job. Radinovich formerly served House District 10B in the Minnesota legislature, and is currently chief of staff to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.

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State Rep. Jason Metsa, 37, who has served an Iron Range district since 2012 and has been a close ally of Nolan, told MinnPost on Friday he was “thinking seriously” about running for the seat and spent the weekend talking it over with family and advisers.

“It’s a daunting decision to have to look at,” Metsa said. “Not one I was expecting when I woke up this morning.”

Former state Rep. Carly Melin, 32, considered a rising DFL star during her six years in the legislature, has not ruled out a bid. (Update: Melin has clarified she is not running.) Jeff Anderson, who ran in the 2012 DFL primary against Nolan and later became his district office director, is also reportedly close to a run.

Other possible candidates include state Sen. Tony Lourey, who represents the southeastern corner of the district, and Michelle Lee, a former TV news anchor in Duluth.

Quick to remove themselves from the speculation were former mayor of Duluth Don Ness, DFL Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, and Tony Sertich, a former state senator who ran the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation from 2011 to 2014.

Republicans see their chance

As Democrats huddled and plotted out potential campaigns for CD8, Republicans could barely contain their excitement that, for the second time this election cycle, another congressional seat they covet in Minnesota lost a Democratic incumbent. (Minnesota’s 1st District was vacated last year by DFL Rep. Tim Walz, who is running for governor.)

Though the district has historically been a DFL stronghold — largely on the strength of support in Duluth and working-class mining communities in St. Louis County — Republicans have made gains, thanks to population growth in the conservative Twin Cities exurbs on the district’s southern edge.

Trump won CD8 in 2016 by 15 points, and picked up Iron Range precincts that hadn’t gone for a Republican since before the Great Depression, fueling GOP hopes that the entire district is turning red.

Because of that, Republicans had already felt good about unseating Nolan, even before he announced his exit. The 2014 and 2016 races in CD8 were the hardest-fought and most expensive House races in Minnesota, and 2016’s attracted $21 million in campaign and outside money, making it the second-most expensive U.S. House race in the country that year.

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With Nolan heading for the exits, however, one Republican in CD8 estimated that their odds of taking the seat immediately went from a one-third shot to a two-thirds chance.

To date, the GOP’s man in CD8 has been Pete Stauber, a St. Louis County Commissioner and former Duluth police lieutenant. Republicans regard him as a top-tier recruit, but Stauber, a former hockey player, may not skate away with the party’s endorsement.

Stewart Mills, who lost to Nolan in 2014 and 2016, said on Friday that he is considering a third run for the CD8 seat. A scion of the family that founded the Mills Fleet Farm chain of outdoor retailers, Mills has a vast personal fortune, as well as name recognition from his past congressional bids, in which he twice came within a few thousand votes of defeating Nolan.

Perhaps seeking to head off a messy primary, the Republican Party of Minnesota issued a statement shortly after Nolan’s announcement to “affirm support” for Stauber. Republicans in the district are privately saying that the support Stauber will need at the district’s nominating convention is far from assured at this early stage, however.

Beyond Mills, there is talk that Kurt Daudt, the Minnesota House Speaker, could jump in on the GOP side. (Daudt is from Crown, in Isanti County on the southern edge of CD8.) State Sen. Paul Gazelka has reportedly ruled out a bid.

The divides that plague Democrats on mining largely do not exist on the GOP side, and in a district that supported Trump, the president and his reputation do not figure to be a sticking point in a Republican endorsement fight.

Republicans will have to grapple with deciding who will be best-positioned to compete in what will be a top-tier race for both parties on the state and national levels. Though the GOP talks confidently about the rising red tide in CD8, Democratic candidates have notched consistent wins here recently: Gov. Mark Dayton and former Sen. Al Franken won by comfortable margins in 2014, and Obama carried the district in 2012.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who won CD8 by 35 points in her last election, will be at the top of the ticket again this year. Democrats will also have on their side a historical advantage as the party out of power in the midterm elections, and an intense drive to take control of the U.S. House.

On both sides, all candidates will at least share one imperative: raise money — and fast.  “This is going to be the most competitive congressional district in the country,” Perpich said. “Candidates are going to have to be able to raise $1.5 million in the next 10 months.”