WASHINGTON – The race for one of Minnesota’s most intensely contested congressional seats is getting more crowded.
Former FBI counterterrorism analyst Leah Phifer announced over the weekend she is challenging incumbent Rep. Rick Nolan for the DFL endorsement in northeastern Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District. Republican Pete Stauber, a St. Louis County commissioner and former pro hockey player, has been building a campaign since summer. And Stewart Mills, who narrowly lost to Nolan in the last two elections, is weighing a possible third run.
The sprawling Eighth was among the most expensive congressional battlegrounds in the nation last year, as Nolan held his seat against a tidal wave of cash from outside the state — and even as President Donald Trump carried the district.
“This time won’t be any different, I’m sure,” Nolan said Tuesday.
But since Nolan withstood two well-funded challenges from Mills in what were mostly good years for Republican candidates, some focus could shift in 2018 to other congressional battlegrounds in Minnesota. That includes two suburban Twin Cities seats now held by Republicans, and the open seat in southern Minnesota’s First District.
But the race Up North still promises to be lively. Phifer, a 33-year-old national security consultant who teaches at Augsburg University, grew up in Two Harbors in a mining family; she spent the summer traveling the district by motorcycle, meeting with voters along the way.
“The DFL base in the district is hurting right now,” said Phifer, who is hoping her decade in federal law enforcement could help her reconcile a deep split between environmentalists and Iron Range communities over issues like pipelines and copper-nickel mining.
Stauber is a former Duluth police lieutenant who survived a bullet to the forehead in an off-duty shooting. He’s hoping his stance on issues like tax cuts and gun rights is more in line with the district’s changing political landscape.
“I have felt for some time there needed to be a different direction in my current representative,” said Stauber. “I’m out six or seven days a week, meeting voters, just having that good living room discussion with folks.”
Stauber says he’s ready to work: “Having been on a championship hockey team, I know you can do great things when you don’t care who gets the credit for it.”
Mills, whose family founded Mills Fleet Farm, said he is still weighing another try.
Recent election cycles saw a series of multimillion-dollar campaigns in the Eighth District, with voters ousting longtime incumbent Jim Oberstar in 2010. Nolan snatched the seat back for the DFL two years later, after having served three terms in Congress 32 years earlier.
Phifer said she began weighing a first-time bid for public office earlier this year amid talk that Nolan would run for governor. When he opted to seek another term in Congress, Phifer decided to jump into the race anyway to offer voters a fresh face.
Nolan, at 73 one of the most familiar faces on the Iron Range, says he’ll continue putting in 12- to 15-hour days.
“Nobody’s going to outwork me, I promise you that,” he said. He called himself “a product of the Eighth District, culturally.”
Nolan has teamed up with Republican Rep. Tom Emmer this year in efforts to defund an Obama-era environmental study of mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) and to hammer out a land swap to give mining companies access to areas the previous administration sought to put off-limits. Phifer said those deals alienated some in the party’s progressive wing to the point they might turn to a third-party candidate.
Phifer, who comes from four generations of miners, said attempts to fend off lawsuits and cancel environmental studies are “undermining due process” and undermining constituents’ faith in that process.
Nolan, who was one of the original sponsors of the legislation that created the BWCA, said he would never support mining in that pristine area. But precious metal mining operations nearby, he said, would be vital not only for the region’s economy but also for a nation desperate for the materials it needs to build things like smartphones and clean energy windmills.
Phifer, who says she will abide by the DFL endorsement in the race, hopes to be the first woman elected in the Eighth, and the first millennial that Minnesota sends to Congress. If she seems young for a congressional bid, that would be nothing new for the district.
“I tease people who tell me ‘Oh, you’re so young’ — remember, our current congressman was 31 years old when he was first elected to this office. So, really, not that young,” she said.