Minnesota’s Rick Nolan Facing Big Decision on Governor Run

DFL congressman’s seat would be a top GOP pickup opportunity

Rep. Rick Nolan, seen here with his wife Mary in Brainerd, Minnesota, last year, says he’s now closer to a 2018 run for governor in the North Star State. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As he heads out of Washington for two weeks back home in Minnesota, Democratic-Farmer-Labor Rep. Rick Nolan has a big decision to make that could have implications for his party’s efforts to retake the House majority in 2018. 

After Nolan outperformed Hillary Clinton by 12 points last fall in his 8th District, once again holding a rural seat Republicans are desperate to pick up, his allies in Minnesota started urging him to run for governor. 

“I’ve gone from polite consideration … to, quite frankly, leaning toward running,” he said Thursday outside the House chamber. He hopes to make a decision by the end of April.

“There’s a sense that you can do more for Minnesota as governor than being in the minority out here,” Nolan said. “That’s a pretty compelling argument.”

[In Trump Country, Democrats Fight to Defend Minnesota Seat]

There’s still doubt in some DFL corners that Nolan will pull the trigger. But all signs point to a gubernatorial campaign in the works. Draft Nolan for Governor, a political committee run by Minnesota operative Brian Rice and 8th District DFL chairman Justin Perpich, conducted a poll last week of primary voters and delegates who’d vote at a state endorsing convention. Nolan called the results “encouraging.” This week, the group hired an operative from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. 

But a decision by Nolan to run for governor could be a blow to national Democrats, who already have to contend with an open seat in the 1st District, which Rep. Tim Walz is vacating to run for governor. Both DFL lawmakers won by less than a point last fall in districts that President Donald Trump carried by double digits. Democrats need to gain 24 House seats to win the majority next year, which means they can’t afford to lose seats in rural districts that the GOP sees as ripe for the picking. 

Potential successors

Nolan’s not concerned about the DFL holding his seat, which has been among the top three most expensive House races in the country, based on outside spending, over the past two cycles.

“All the things that Trump is proposing and doing, I think it’s going to be one of the strongest years ever for Democrats running for federal office,” Nolan said. Walz made the same argument about the DFL’s chances of holding his southern Minnesota district without him. 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee already has a staffer in Nolan’s district.

There’s a long list of potential DFL candidates who could run to succeed Nolan. They include former state Rep. Joe Radinovich, who ran Nolan’s 2016 re-election campaign; former state House Majority Leader Tony Sertich; former Duluth Mayor Don Ness, who worked for former Rep. James L. Oberstar; state Sen. Thomas Bakk, who has a strong fundraising network; Jeff Anderson, Nolan’s district director who ran against him in the 2012 DFL primary; Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, who’d be a likely EMILY’s List recruit; state Rep. Jason Metsa, who represents the Eastern Iron Range and has strong labor ties; state Sen. Tony Lourey, a farmer and son of former gubernatorial candidate Becky Lourey; former Cook County Commissioner Sue Hakes; counterterrorism expert Leah Phifer; state Rep. Jennifer Schultz of Duluth; and Sen. Al Franken staffer Alana Petersen.

Sertich, Larson or Ness could clear the field, according to one DFL operative in the district.

Top GOP target

If Nolan doesn’t run for re-election, two-time Republican challenger Stewart Mills will likely jump into the race, a Minnesota GOP operative confirmed Thursday. Other potential GOP candidates include state House Speaker Kurt Daudt, state Sen. Carrie Ruud, state Rep. Sandy Layman and businesswoman Jennifer Carnahan.

First elected to Congress in 1974 from the 6th District, Nolan served three terms before voluntarily leaving in 1981. He made a comeback more than three decades later in the 8th District, unseating one-term GOP Rep. Chip Cravaack in 2012.

Nolan said he’s proud of his hard-fought victories and confident he’s got another win in him, whether it’s in his district or statewide. That comes through when he talks about the GOP’s failed efforts to oust him. 

Several months after Mill’s second loss, Nolan said Mills called him. “He said, ‘I just got to congratulate you. I’ve done everything I conceivably know how to do, and you beat me. Congratulations.’”

Whoever runs on either side, the 8th District will be a top target for Republicans. Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC backed by GOP leadership, spent more money trying to knock off Nolan last year than they did in any other House race. Former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman is the fund’s executive director, so the super PAC has always had a special interest in flipping the 8th District. 

That’s another source of pride for Nolan. 

“I ran into Norm Coleman at the airport recently, and I was teasing him. I said, ‘Norm, when are you going to stop wasting all that good Republican money trying to defeat your old pal Rick Nolan?’” he said.

‘A nice way to end a career’

Those tough campaigns may have emboldened Nolan to run for governor. “If we’re going to win, we need a progressive from the rural area who has proven they can win elections,” he said. 

“I’ve been pretty good at winning elections,” he added, cracking a smile.   

But Nolan said his desire to run statewide is also about making sure the DFL holds the 8th District long after his time in politics ends.

“If I kept the 8th District to run for one more term, and then if we lost the governorship, and had nothing to say about reapportionment and lost the darn district for the next 10 years, I’d never forgive myself,” he said, referring to upcoming once-a-decade redistricting. 

And then there’s the lifestyle argument. Nolan, 73, has 13 grandchildren and would like to be around for their sporting events, as well as the hunting and sugar bushing he enjoys, while still being able to serve in public office. “That’s a nice way to end a career,” he said.

But Nolan wouldn’t be the only big name in the gubernatorial race. Walz announced his campaign last month, earning fellow DFL Rep. Collin C. Peterson’s endorsement even before officially entering the race, MinnPost reported. 

For now, Nolan has two weeks at home, during which he plans to plant some trees with his wife, and come closer to a final decision. 

“Do I spend it campaigning for governor or do I spend it campaigning for re-election? If not re-election, do I just go home and have fun?” he joked. 

“I’m doing both. I’ve got 20 town meetings in my district, and every other day off I’ve got some time to call some old friends and people whose judgement I respect,” he said.

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