J. Patrick Coolican of the Star Tribune reports that U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan is considering running for governor in 2018. Nolan, a Democrat, represents the Eighth District of Northeastern Minnesota.
Nolan pulled off a remarkable victory in his 2016 re-election bid. He defeated his Republican challenger even though this toss-up district swinging decisively toward Donald Trump in the presidential race. Nolan only won by 2,000 votes, but the win established him as a political survivor with a loyal base in Northern Minnesota.
On one hand Nolan, 73, might seem too old and too regional to be a plausible candidate in a DFL increasingly dominated by younger Twin Cities voters. Indeed, despite his apparently good health, Nolan’s age would be a liability. And Nolan’s brand of folksy economic populism and mining-friendly policies better fit an Iron Range union hall than an arena full of DFL delegates.
However, I wouldn’t describe this as a totally crazy idea.
First, consider the other DFL candidates who have already announced. They include State Auditor Rebecca Otto, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, and State Rep. Erin Murphy. Each of them hold their own unique appeal to DFLers, but none have necessarily frightened away competition.
More candidates will likely emerge, but the bigger story is the one that didn’t. Amy Klobuchar opted to run for re-election to the Senate, rather than for governor as she had considered doing.
Klobuchar would have been a unifying candidate in a DFL party full of sometimes warring factions. Without her, the candidate pool becomes far more fragmented.
Coleman and Murphy will have to build coalitions outside St. Paul. Based on what? With whom? Coleman is a popular mayor of the state’s second largest city, but isn’t well known outside his hometown. Murphy is well known to Minnesota legislators and political wheeler-dealers, but probably even less known to voters outside her district. Sitting here in rural Itasca County, I’m not sure I see an easy way forward for them.
Otto presents a more compelling candidacy. She’s more exurban than metro, living in a rural area near Stillwater. She’s won three statewide races. Otto earned a lot of support from progressives and environmental DFLers for her skeptical stance on nonferrous mining projects in Northeastern Minnesota.
That’s the part that makes me think Nolan isn’t crazy for trying to run. As I’ve written, Otto has already shown that, in a primary, any enemies she’s made on the Iron Range can be overwhelmed by her strong DFL support from the rest of the state. Who from the pro-mining wing of the DFL could avoid that fate? Tom Bakk? His 2010 campaign was lackluster. His tenure as Senate Majority Leader was controversial. And then he lost the Senate Majority, rather unexpectedly, last year. The decisive 34th vote came from the defeat of a senior member of the Iron Range DFL delegation.
What I observed in 2016 was the degree to which rural Minnesota, particularly voters on or near the Iron Range, rejected the DFL outright. Not for logical reasons, but for emotional ones. DFL voters sense the trouble, but don’t yet know how to appeal to the soft Trump voters. Otto, in particular, is a logos candidate operating in an age of pathos. I admire her greatly, but that would be her biggest challenge.
Meantime, Nolan survived in 2016 because he’s an old timey pathos slinger. He lives in rural Crosby. He started his own wood pallet factory. Pickup truck. Rifles and orange bibs. He says the word “Medicare” the way your grandpa pronounces it. Sometimes his speeches drone off into soft edges, but his applause lines are simple and consistent. He’s also a knowledgeable, nice guy who doesn’t make many enemies.
Further, Nolan isn’t just a Iron Range mining guy; he’s one of the few candidates emerging who endorsed Bernie Sanders in the primary. If he manages to win over some of the Sanders progressives, he might have a working coalition. Long shot, but maybe.
Then there’s this. I don’t know whether Nolan wants to run again for Congress or not. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is probably at a loss for finding a slam dunk candidate if he doesn’t. Running for governor — even if he loses — would be an honorable way for Nolan to get the DCCC whips off his ass. He doesn’t have to decide when to declare himself a lame duck. He could be the governor! Maybe! Lose, and he goes fishing. No harm in that.
In a one-on-one between Otto and Nolan, I’d see Otto having significant advantages in the DFL endorsement race and/or primary. Nolan’s not a very good fundraiser. But it’s unlikely to turn out that way. Lt. Gov. Tina Smith is likely to enter the fray with some money to spend, making a bee-line to the primary. Other recognizable names could step forward. Paul Thissen? The 2016 DFL gubernatorial field could get crowded.
Nolan runs well in a pack. It’s not crazy. It’s not likely, but it’s not crazy.