MN-8: Rick Nolan comeback bid shakes up race

Today my series on Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District continues with more posts about the DFLers running to unseat Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN8). Today we meet the people considering a run, starting with the most active in the group, former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan. At noon I’ll introduce several of the others, including some who might be tempted to enter the race.

Rick Nolan was elected to Congress in 1974, the same year as Rep. Jim Oberstar. Nolan’s path proved very different than that of Oberstar, the longtime dean of northern Minnesota politics who would go on to serve 36 years until he lost to Cravaack in 2010.

In three terms, from 1974-1980, Nolan made waves as a brash young liberal from a rural Sixth District that then included his home on the Cuyuna Range, since redrawn into the Eighth. He was among the very first to vote to withdraw U.S. forces from Vietnam and was a key early opponent of the renomination of President Jimmy Carter in 1980, supporting Sen. Ted Kennedy instead. (I learned most of this from a fine Nolan profile piece by Stu Rothenberg in Roll Call, very much required reading for those interested in this topic).

So Nolan was bucking conventional political wisdom, winning competitive elections an increasingly conservative region, and then in 1980 he opted not to seek re-election. Worn out from partisan Washington, a lack of progress and the toll politics took on his personal life, Nolan walked away. He returned home to north central Minnesota, became a successful entrepreneur and international business leader. He remained active in regional DFL politics, but never again ran for office.

Until now.

Nolan has not yet announced his candidacy for the MN-8 DFL nomination, but he, Jeff Anderson and Tarryl Clark seem to be at all the same social occasions. He told the Brainerd Dispatch he is 99 percent certain to run and plans an announcement of his intentions in July. Though I have not yet met Nolan, people I know have seen him speak and talked with him. His message is simple. He’s been to the puppet show. He knows how it works and won’t get caught in the gamesmanship. He believes now is a time for specific actions to save a sinking republic, largely through a left-center interpretation of fiscal reform. Implicit in all of this is the hypothesis that he is in a unique position to run, win, and serve effectively right away.

Nolan’s biggest roadblock is something he can’t control, voters’ perceptions of his age. Sixty-eight, his earthly years if elected, is on the high end for a new Member of Congress, even above average for the body as a whole. The 8th district is marked by its own demographic aging, so there is some wiggle room here. Further, this election will be heavily influenced by the issue of Medicare and Social Security. Older voters will be very motivated and, at least in that case, Nolan’s age is not a disadvantage. Young parents and middle aged professionals might have a different view.

Secondly, Nolan has yet to announce and hasn’t made a major push to raise money yet. It would be logical that a guy like Nolan would have access to some kind of fundraising network, but that’s not clear at this time. He was known as an impressive fundraiser when he was in Congress, but that was before the internet, cell phones, fax machines and, well, I’ll stop there.

One interesting fact: Nolan is the only DFL candidate so far who’s won the endorsement of other rumored candidates. A few weeks ago State Rep. Ryan Winkler, who had been mulling the Tarryl Clark-like move to the district from elsewhere, offering his endorsement of Nolan. Then today former State Rep. Tim Faust, a minister from the Mora area in the southern 8th, also endorsed Nolan. If Nolan were to start securing labor backing or notable supporters in Duluth or on the Range he’d be formidable.

Can Nolan start up a Lazarus campaign after all these years? Can he pitch himself to a younger crowd of DFL activists hungry for a win? Can someone who walked away in frustration with the system go on to change it after 30 years of life experience? These are compelling questions suitable for a political drama, but more than that they are central to Nolan’s candidacy in MN-8.

Read Part 1: Redistricting Scenarios; Part 2: Chip Cravaack; Part 3: The non-candidates, Part 4: Jeff Anderson or Part 5: Tarryl Clark. Follow MinnesotaBrown on Facebook or Twitter for news. My book, a humorous primer on life north of the metro, is “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”

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