The Undefeated Rick Nolan: Analyzing Election 2014

Rick Nolan speaks to reporters on Election Night, Nov. 4, 2014 (PHOTO: Nolan campaign)

Rick Nolan speaks to reporters on Election Night, Nov. 4, 2014 (PHOTO: Nolan campaign)

On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan deployed the vaunted ground game of Minnesota’s quirky Democratic-Farmer-Labor party and a passionate closing message to eke out the toughest election of his career.

Nolan’s years in Congress bookend an entire generation, serving first from 1975 to 1981 — then later returning in 2012. Though the political map surrounding his home in the Crosby area has changed, he’s only run for office in the kind of districts that swing like pinewood fences in the wind. And whether the year is 1974 or 2014, the folksy liberal businessman Rick Nolan has always faced challenges undefeated.

Nolan has also been incredibly lucky, a trait often held by winners. Tuesday’s outcome was no different.

The vote was close. About 4,000 votes, or 1.5 percent, separated the incumbent Rick Nolan from Republican Stewart Mills, the scion of a chain of fleet farm stores and candidate touted by national politicos as the “Republican Brad Pitt.” The Green Party’s Ray “Skip” Sandman, an activist and Vietnam vet from the Fond du Lac reservation, pulled more than 11,000 votes for 4.5 percent, a healthy collection of mostly environmental-minded liberals who bolted from Nolan’s left flank in protest of his support for controversial mining projects in the Arrowhead region.

The situation reminded many watchers of the conditions in 2010, when longtime incumbent Rep. Jim Oberstar lost to Tea Party Republican Chip Cravaack. The socially conservative, economically liberal and labor-minded Oberstar, and his former boss John Blatnik, had kept Minnesota’s 8th safely in DFL hands since shortly after WWII. But modern political spending, demographic changes (and geographic growth) of the district, and increasing nationalization of races like this finally broke the dam in 2010, coupled with exceptionally low voter turnout in DFL areas.

This year, Nolan was facing a situation just as tough as Oberstar’s. The main difference was he and his team knew what was coming.

Let’s look at what happened:


In this Minnesota's Eighth Congressional District precinct map, Duluth and the Range hold blue while Brainerd Lakes and southern exurbs stay deep red. (GRAPHIC: Chris Saunders)

In this Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District precinct map, Duluth and the Mesabi Iron Range hold dark blue while Brainerd Lakes and southern exurbs stay deep red. (GRAPHIC: Chris Saunders)


This might come as a surprise. Nolan’s total number of votes was lower that Rep. Jim Oberstar’s take in 2010. Stewart Mills’ take was, thus, obviously much lower than former Rep. Chip Cravaack’s that same year. Turnout was down across the board, despite huge efforts to turn people out to the polls. But where turnout was down the most was in areas where Cravaack had piled on the numbers — places like Chisago County.

You can see from the Chris Saunders precinct analysis map above that the district’s four distinct regions are visible. The dark blue nook at the head of Lake Superior is the DFL fortress of Duluth. The string of blue towns that act as a sort of border against the red of the far north and far west, that’s the Mesabi Iron Range. The dark red in the Southeast is the Brainerd and Cuyuna Lakes. And the red at the far south are the Twin Cities exurbs. Even more than in the last election, the politically and geographically diverse regions of the 8th separated from one another quite neatly.

On Election Day, it appeared that the strategy hinged on DFL turnout, especially in Duluth. And while turnout there was up, slightly, it wasn’t anything special. Fundamentally, Nolan ran as strong as he could to close out the race, and did just enough to overcome opposition that relied too much on a national Republican wave.

I spoke with a veteran 8th District Republican organizer about what might have caused Mills to miss this pick-up opportunity. He said, fundamentally, what Mills did differently was depend on the national Republican Party and its strategists too heavily. He didn’t spend as much time at events talking to people and building personal relationships with the local party activists who would be called on to drive turnout and volunteers throughout the campaign.

This mirrors something I noticed before the election. When I was looking for campaign photos to use in my coverage of the events, I found a very nice photo of Nolan talking to supporters. I tried to find the photo’s equal in Mills’ stream, but mostly saw pictures of Mills staring at the camera with people on either side, or photos of Mills listening to someone explain some piece of equipment to him. It just seemed like Mills was bouncing from event to event, failing to capitalize on the retail political opportunities along the way.

When Cravaack lost to Nolan in 2012, plenty of photographs showed Republican volunteers crying. His supporters were passionate. The Republicans I know seemed to be more ho-hum about Mills’ loss. Sure, they voted for him, maybe even liked him. But the passion wasn’t there, and in midterms passion is the most important thing, because otherwise people don’t show up or tell their friends to show up.

As for the Mills argument that Nolan would lose votes on the Iron Range for not being enough of a pro-mining congressman? Nolan carried the entire Iron Range, including solid wins in Ely, Biwabik, Aurora and Hoyt Lakes. His numbers weren’t “Oberstarian,” but those days are long gone. Despite having more grey hair than last time, and in spite of a powerful national Republican wave, Rick Nolan has zig-zagged his way to another win.

It wasn’t pretty, but in re-election battles Rick Nolan remains undefeated.


I will take the opportunity to point out that my published MN-8 prediction going into Election Day was correct within half a percentage point. I didn’t have any public opinion polls to work with, only the combination of political indexes and anecdotal observations. I’m not always right, but I am pretty proud of this one.

UPDATE: One correction, I have since learned that Nolan is not technically undefeated. He lost his first bid for Congress before being elected in 1974. I mistakenly believed he had gone directly from the legislature to Congress. He is undefeated in re-election bids and has nevertheless shown remarkable ability to survive tough races.


  1. Yep. I rarely saw Mills appear in an uncontrolled environment. He didn’t even bother walking in the Brainerd 4th of July parade.
    Conversely, I’ve personally ran into Nolan at Cub Foods, and he’s never been shy about showing the flag. If you stand for office, you have to talk to everybody!

  2. David Sturrock says

    Great analysis — thanks for posting.
    One (ancient) quibble: Rick Nolan is not quite undefeated, having lost a close race (I think 53-47%) against incumbent GOP Congressman John Zwach in the old 6th District, of which Nolan’s home was a far northern outpost. Obviously not a career-crippler since he bounced back to capture the by-then open seat two years later!

    • Jeez, I didn’t know that. I honestly thought Nolan made direct leap from legislature to Congress. Kinda flubs my theme.

      • It bears mentioning that this was several years before I was born. 🙂

      • Gene Christensen says

        Wikipedia usually has pretty good stuff. Check “early political career”.

      • It was a dark and stormy Nov when a guy named Mc Govern
        Ran to run the world from the world famous oval.
        From the strong and powerful Six is where a guy won named Nix.
        Nixon that is, who did get re-elected, but was later self rejected.
        Young Rick Nolan opposed the known name of Zwach, John that was.
        We worked hard, put up 4 x 8’s on plywood then of Rick Nolan on half of 23
        The final count was Zwach got only two percent more than Rick, it made me sick.
        It made Rick stronger, he worked much more and won in ’74.

      • Rick Nolan in ’72 followed a loss of Terry Montgomery in “70. The CD then had a different definition of diversity. It was defined as Central German Catholic and Bavarian German Catholic, with islands of Lutherans here and there, a pocket of Polish and an Irishman named Nolan.

  3. Nolan knew early on that he was in a tight race, and was smart enough not to get caught flat-footed like Oberstar did in 2010.

  4. I met Oberstar when he toured a number of attractions, including my then-place-of-employment. I shook his hand and he quickly observed something about my handshake and character.

    a few months later, Jim was speaking to a couple of other people in O’hare airport; I was walking by and happened to catch his eye: I thought a nod was plenty, but Jim said, loudly, “Brainerd!”

    Rick Nolan has a bit of that quality. Not just luck is involved, I think. Its a talent that is likely carefully honed. I doubt it predicts anything but lots of votes, but that’s what wins elections.

  5. Brainerd mom says

    Great analysis, Aaron. I ran into Stewart at the Paul Bunyan Amusement Center in Brainerd in August. I’m pretty sure he was alone and trying to talk to people in the park, but his interactions seemed so forced and socially awkward that I felt a little sorry for him. He seemed out of his comfort zone. He may have the money, but he’s a politician not yet ready for prime time.

  6. Don Watson says

    Very interesting analysis – and the observations of commenters definitely added to and supported your analysis. I started reading postings of your blog when we were contemplating a move from the UP to MN and you most definitely helped us to develop more understanding of the political dynamics of the state. Thanks for all you do!

  7. Independent says

    Aaron you called this one spot on. I was surprised there wasn’t a stronger Mills vote on the east range.

  8. Liane Gale says

    “The Green Party’s Ray “Skip” Sandman, an activist and Vietnam vet from the Fond du Lac reservation, pulled more than 11,000 votes for 4.5 percent, a healthy collection of mostly environmental-minded liberals who bolted from Nolan’s left flank in protest of his support for controversial mining projects in the Arrowhead region.”

    This statement makes a number of assumptions:
    1. All votes for Sandman would have gone for Nolan if Sandman wouldn’t have run. What about people who would not have voted at all, what about Republican-leaning people, who voted for Sandman?
    2. Even though the main focus of his campaign was mining, his platform encompassed more than mining. Could it be for example that some voters also voted for him because he does not accept contributions from PACs or other special interest groups?
    3. You call his votes “protest votes”. Could it be that people voted for him, not because they wanted to “protest” Nolan, but because they actually would prefer someone like Ray “Skip” Sandman in Congress?

    • It is definitely true that some Sandman voters may have stayed home rather than vote for either major party. That is part of the same “protest” voting pattern. There may even have been three Republicans who voted for Sandman.

      Although many people may wish for a world in which Skip Sandman could be a viable candidate, anyone anchored in the real world knew from the start that he could not win, so voting because they preferred him clearly comes from some motive other than supporting him as a real candidate.

      The point is clearly to send a message, and that message is clearly directed at the DFL. The message is that if the DFL does not support policies endorsed by Greens, some voters will withdraw their support and make it harder for the DFL to win and easier for the GOP. The central Green thesis, repeated ad infinitum by Green candidates, is that there is no difference between the two major parties, so costing one party the election and giving it to the other makes no difference.

      For the record, I found Sandman both thoughtful and civil in his campaign, and apparently interested in obtaining a platform to express his ideas. Other Green candidates, not so much. They seemed angry, confused, and bitter that the world was not the way they imagined it could be, and much less anchored in reality.

      In our system, minus ranked choice voting or a parliamentary system, Green voting is a protest vote directed specifically at Democrats, just as the Constitution Party and others of its ilk are protest votes directed at the GOP. In this election Green voting had no real impact in the end, other than to record the protest. In past elections it has had significant impact, swinging elections, and it may again.

  9. I personally met Mills on three different occasions on the “East Range” alone whereas I didn’t meet Nolan once. I’m not sure that your criticism that he avoided retail campaigning has any merit whatsoever.

    • That wasn’t my observation, that was based on my Republican source. Mills obviously toured the district extensively. He just failed to make the same personal impression that Cravaack did in 2010.

      • Exactly. For example, Mills wouldn’t be caught dead rallying with Duluth postal workers, but Nolan came out for that.

        • Diane johnson says

          wrong. I am a postal worker and he came and sat with me. Most postal workers do not like Democrats and it is a very unfriendly place to go. Would you go to Ferguson, Mo and ask people to vote Republican during the riots. ?

  10. Tammy Swedberglund says

    Like you (kinda) said, Nolan’s something of a feel-good Boomer placeholder for last century’s DFL . Mills , just no , what with his lame duck proxy warbling about guns from an armchair (just to cherry pick one of the basket of narrowly focused wedge issues championed by Mills ) . The mining thing – both established oxide and new, proposed stuff – is iceberg-tip glocally salient and could well become a much larger factor in increasingly mutable Dem and Rpb policy goals , with Democrats wanting to extract metals for use in spurring get-the-climate-ball-not-rolling energy infrastructure make-work and Rpb wanting just to rev archaic GDP goals based on models that won’t function well without ever-higher rates of growth (use the ore in industry or let it get traded around the commodity sheds where ever, just get it out) . Oh, and don’t forget those all-importantly ethereal jobs that they seem to always be talking about. It may become this Peter, Paul, and Mary resource round robin where cheap oil damps rapid adoption of cleaner energy technologies that assume ,say, copper as an input, and so we end up talking about KXL dilbit -v- Polymet sourced windmills as the debate becomes this lumpy jobs or/for the environment binary . To digress , or jump tangents entirely , there should be a gasoline tax to underwrite a statewide hub and spoke high-speed rail topology that connects Duluth and others to the Cities . Sustainable tourism really isn’t, at least in the still largely car-centric present , not unlike how environmentally friendly sulfide mining is something of a euphemism.

  11. Mike Worcester says

    Wonderful analysis to this former 8th CD resident.

    Regarding your map, I tend to cringe just a little when I see those color-coded maps showing strictly geographic vote tallies. Takes me back to the post 2000 presidential election where V.P. Gore clearly received more votes, but I saw maps being distributed showing that Gov Bush won more counties nationwide. Like that should matter. Same goes with the Gay Marriage Amendment two years ago, where supposedly wise people kept saying, ‘but look how many more counties voted for the amendment!’ To that I say “so what”? The bottom 63 counties in population do not even equal that of Hennepin County.

    So when I look at maps like yours above, my first thought is: how does this correlate to voting numbers? As I never get tired of saying, cows, corn stalks, and coyotes don’t vote — people do.

    Okay, rant over, back to work. 🙂

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