WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan’s surprise announcement of retirement has a number of Minnesota politicians trying to decide if they want to run in what is expected to be one of the most expensive and hard-fought congressional races in the country.
Nolan, a DFLer from Crosby, announced Friday that he would not run again after initially deciding last year to do so. The largely rural Eighth Congressional District in northeastern Minnesota, which has traditionally backed DFLers but went big for Donald Trump in 2016, was already high on the priority list for both parties; Nolan’s decision is likely to make it even more competitive.
“This has been one of the most expensive political districts in the country over the last several cycles, and that’s not going to change,” said Jeff Anderson, Nolan’s district director. Anderson competed against Nolan in the 2012 DFL primary.
“This is going to be an incredibly competitive election ... and this is a district that isn’t solidly blue [Democratic] anymore,” said Anderson, who is thinking about running again.
That hasn’t stopped DFLers from eyeing the race. One, former FBI intelligence analyst Leah Phifer, was already planning to challenge Nolan for the party endorsement. Another, North Branch Mayor Kirsten Hagen Kennedy, announced over the weekend her plans to run.
“Typically women go, ‘Is it the right time? Can I win? Am I smart enough?’ — where men typically just put their hat in the ring and they go for it,” Kennedy said. “I decided this weekend to go ahead and announce.”
Kennedy attended Trump’s recent State of the Union address in Washington, D.C., as Nolan’s guest. She had thought about running in a couple of years, but she said he mentioned during the trip that she might not have to wait that long. Kennedy said she would try to follow Nolan’s example by crossing the aisle to get things done and not drawing lines in the sand.
Nolan won his last election by just over 2,000 votes, and Trump carried the district by 16 percent, suggesting an opening for a strong GOP candidate in this district, which includes Duluth and the Arrowhead, the Iron Range and Brainerd Lakes area and stretches down to exurban north metro counties.
To date, there’s been only one major contender on the GOP side, St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber. He said he spoke to Nolan on Friday but declined to say whether the incumbent’s retirement would boost his bid.
Stauber is “only focused on our campaign and our message,” he said. A former Duluth police officer, he touted his blue-collar background as a good fit for the district and said that “my goal when I’m elected is to make sure that we bring common-sense legislation to not only the Eighth District but this country.”
So far, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is backing Stauber. But Stewart Mills, who challenged Nolan twice, said in a Facebook post Friday that he would reconsider an earlier decision not to run this time. Mills did not return a message seeking comment Monday.
Several current and former DFL legislators are thinking about the race, as is Anderson, also a former Duluth city councilor. He said contenders would have to decide soon.
“Every day that goes by that a candidate is undeclared is a day that you aren’t raising money, and unfortunately in modern politics you need to hit the road and hit the phone and raise a million dollars in order to win and ultimately be competitive and ultimately win in November,” Anderson said.
And it isn’t just about money, he added: The district is geographically large, and candidates have to spend a tremendous amount of time traveling to talk with voters.
Joe Radinovich, Nolan’s former campaign manager, said he’d announce a decision in the next day or so. That would mean leaving his new position as chief of staff to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who took office last month.
“My work down here is important, but my home is and always has been in Crosby,” said Radinovich, who also served a term in the Legislature. State Sen. Tony Lourey, a Kerrick DFLer, is also considering it.
“It’s a big decision and I’m calling a lot of trusted friends I’ve had in the community, leaders across the region, trying to decide if I’m the right fit,” said Lourey.
In an e-mail, DFL state Rep. Jason Metsa confirmed that he’s also considering a bid.
“I know that this decision must not be about personal ambition,” Metsa said. “Rather about the values we hold dear to us and the drive to fight for those values in Washington, D.C.”