Republican Stewart Mills said Monday he would request — and pay for — a hand recount of votes in the congressional race he narrowly lost to DFL U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan.
"We just want to make sure that every vote gets counted, and counted correctly," Mills said in an interview. "We're prepared to accept whatever is the genuine will of the voters, but we would be negligent not to seek this recount."
Nolan, the incumbent, beat Mills by 2,009 votes of a total of 356,971 cast in northeastern Minnesota's Eighth Congressional District. That margin, a little more than one-half a percent, is too large to trigger an automatic, state-funded recount.
But state law allows Mills to request a hand recount as long as he pays for it himself. He said the margin is small enough to merit a recount, especially since Nolan outperformed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the district. Republican President-elect Donald Trump won the Eighth District, and Nolan got nearly 40,000 more votes than Clinton.
"We're not alleging voter fraud, we're not saying anyone got the numbers wrong, but there's enough questions that need to be answered that can only be answered by a hand recount," Mills said.
Nolan's campaign manager, Joe Radinovich, disagrees. Nolan's "relative margin was over twice that of Governor Dayton's 2010 victory, and it was over twice the threshold established in law," he said in a statement Monday night.
"It is evident voters recognized Congressman Nolan as an effective champion of their issues. While he has the right to do so, Mr. Mills' choice to pay for a recount is unprecedented, and it calls into question the integrity of Minnesota's election system, which is administered through the volunteer efforts of election judges from both parties. We appreciate those efforts, and we expect there will be no change in the outcome," Radinovich wrote.
Minnesota had statewide recounts in two consecutive election years: the U.S. Senate contest in 2008 between DFLer Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman, and the 2010 gubernatorial race between DFLer Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer. In both cases, the winning margin was small enough to trigger an automatic recount.
Still, while recounts are common in state legislative races, they are much more rare in statewide or congressional district elections. The last congressional district recount in the state was in southwestern Minnesota in 2000, when Republican Mark Kennedy beat DFLer David Minge by 155 votes out of almost 300,000 cast. That, too, was a close enough margin to trigger an automatic recount.
The sprawling Eighth District includes Duluth and the Arrowhead Region, the Iron Range and the Brainerd Lakes area, and it stretches south all the way to some northern Twin Cities exurbs. The traditionally DFL-leaning district has grown more favorable to Republicans in recent years, and in this cycle national Democrats and Republicans alike poured more than $17 million into advertising — making it the country's most expensive House race.
Nolan was running for his third consecutive term after an earlier stint in Congress in the 1970s. Mills, a member of the Minnesota family that built the Mills Fleet Farm retail empire, also narrowly lost to Nolan two years ago. That time, Nolan's winning margin was a little bigger, about 4,000 votes.
Mills said he expects the recount to cost him "just under six figures." He also sank about $2 million of his own money into the race. He will officially file a recount request Tuesday, after the State Canvassing Board certifies the Nov. 8 election results. He said he didn't know how long a recount would take.
Mills said he doesn't mean to be disruptive and he means no disrespect to Nolan.
"If congressman Nolan did outperform Hillary Clinton to the degree the initial numbers show, then literally, hats off to the man and I owe him a beer," Mills said.
Staff writer Allison Sherry contributed to this report.