Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.) said Friday he won’t seek reelection this year, a blow to Democrats’ chances at holding his battleground seat in November.
Nolan, 74, was first elected to Congress in the Watergate midterm election of 1974. After serving three terms in the House, he retired ahead of the 1980 elections.
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Nolan surprised many when he announced he would mount a comeback in the 2012 elections. He defeated then-freshman Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) by 9 percentage points.
While Nolan’s Iron Range district has been traditionally Democratic territory — former President Barack Obama won 53 percent of the vote there in 2008 and 52 percent in 2012 — it swung heavily toward President Donald Trump in 2016. Trump carried it by a wide margin, 54 percent to 39 percent, over Hillary Clinton.
Still, Nolan withstood those national headwinds and barely held on, defeating GOP challenger Stewart Mills by just over 2,000 votes.
Mills — whom Nolan also defeated in 2014 — isn’t running for a third time. But Republicans were hopeful Pete Stauber, a St. Louis County commissioner and police officer, could be the one to knock off the incumbent. Stauber had $137,000 in cash on hand at the end of 2017, less than Nolan’s $554,000.
“We currently have one of the strongest recruits in the country, Pete Stauber, in the race who’s garnering strong local support,” said Matt Gorman, communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Nolan had been facing a primary challenge from Leah Phifer, who had criticized Nolan for “only” focusing on the district’s “mining economy.” Phifer had only $11,000 in her campaign account at the end of last year.
Nolan said in a statement he hoped his announcement would allow other Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party candidates to step forward before the June 5 filing deadline.
“Hopefully the timing of this announcement in this still-young election year will provide prospective candidates with ample opportunity to present themselves to voters and activists at the many party county conventions to be held over the next several months throughout our region,” Nolan said in a statement.
The race in the now-open 8th Congressional District will add to the political upheaval in Minnesota this year. Both Senate seats are on the ballot: Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is up for reelection, and appointed Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) is running for the final two years of the unexpired term of former Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who resigned last month.
Gov. Mark Dayton — himself a former senator — isn’t seeking a third term. Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), who represents a battleground House seat in southern Minnesota, is running for governor. If Walz becomes the DFL nominee, he could face former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is mulling a political comeback following his early exit from the 2012 presidential race.
Meanwhile, Democrats are also targeting Reps. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) and Erik Philip Paulsen (R-Minn.) — both of whom represent surburban Twin Cities districts — this fall. Lewis, who won by 2 percentage points in 2016, represents a district Trump carried by only 1 percentage point. Paulsen won by a more comfortable, 14-point margin — but Clinton actually won Paulsen’s district by 9 points.
Republicans will target longtime Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson’s seat. Peterson won reelection by 5 points last cycle, 52 percent to 47 percent, even as Trump carried his district by a whopping 31-point margin.
National Democrats on Friday pledged to keep Nolan’s seat in Democratic hands, despite Trump’s surge there last cycle.
“Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District is a Democratic seat, and that certainly will not change in 2018,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We look forward to electing another Democrat to represent the hardworking people of northern Minnesota, who can carry on Rick’s legacy.”
Republicans, meanwhile, cheered Nolan’s retirement, with the NRCC’s Gorman saying Nolan “saved us the trouble of defeating him this fall.”
Elena Schneider contributed to this report.