Candidates mull suddenly wide open MN-8 race

PHOTO: Ed Schipul, Flickr Creative Commons

UPDATE: I’ve created a special MN-8 page to provide up-to-date coverage of this race.

Amid Friday’s stunning news that Rick Nolan would retire from Congress, we now try to sort out who else might run now that the seat is wide open.

Of course, we know that DFLer Leah Phifer was already challenging Nolan for the party endorsement. The former FBI intelligence analyst released a statement upon the news of Nolan’s retirement, attempting to unify DFLers behind her.

“Congressman Nolan has been a champion for single payer healthcare and campaign finance reform, amongst many other progressive issues, for a very long time.” stated Leah Phifer, candidate for the seat. Phifer looks forward to carrying on that legacy as the next representative for the district.

Congressman Nolan’s retirement presents a unique opportunity to unite the DFL in the 8th District. “I’ve been traveling the district the past eight months, hearing from many DFL’ers concerned about the future of our district. I look forward to uniting us around our core values of economic justice, human rights and environmental protections.”

Phifer’s calls for unity will likely go unheeded. Other DFL candidates will almost certainly run in the primary. Perhaps, however, Phifer could be considered a favorite for endorsement since she was already electing delegates prior to Nolan’s announcement.

The big name non-candidates

Several big names immediately ruled themselves out. Former Duluth Mayor Don Ness and former Iron Range legislator Tony Sertich quickly tamped down speculation with social media statements.

State Sen. Tom Bakk issued a statement congratulating Rick Nolan on his retirement and saying that “While Rick will be missed in Congress, my priority continues to be representing the people of Senate District 3 and building a DFL majority in the Minnesota Senate.” So, that sounds like a “no” for Bakk, at least for now.

Meantime, current Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, a rising DFL star also touted as a potential candidate in the early hours, said she wasn’t running on Facebook.

Considering it

Joe Radinovich

But several potential DFL candidates are considering a run. Among them, former State Rep. and Nolan campaign manager Joe Radinovich who, like Nolan, hails from Crosby.

Radinovich served one term in a conservative Cuyuna Range House district, losing after his vote in favor of same-sex marriage. He has worked for the IRRRB and recently took a job as chief of staff for new Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. He posted the simple message “considering it” on Facebook, including a picture of him with Nolan.

Another big name from the Iron Range, State Rep. Jason Metsa of Virginia, said he was also considering a run. Before election, Metsa was a journeyman political operative and labor organizer.

Metsa’s statement:

Jason Metsa

“Since the news this morning that Congressman Nolan will not seek re-election, I have been asked if I will run for Congress. I am considering it — but it is not a question or a decision I take lightly,” Metsa said.

“I have spent much of the last decade working hard for Minnesota families. I know that this decision must not be about personal ambition. Rather about the values we hold dear to us and the drive to fight for those values in Washington D.C. A candidate must give their full commitment to the people and values of the 8th Congressional District and run a robust campaign designed to win this November.”

“Over the coming days, I will continue having conversations with my wife, family, constituents, and those who are also considering throwing their hats into the ring.”

Michelle Lee

Another potential candidate: former KBJR news anchor Michelle Lee.

“I am also considering the possibility of running for Congress. I’m having conversations about what’s best for the district and the progressive ideals shared by so many. As the nominating process begins it is important that our next member of congress packs his or her suitcase with progressive ideas and a promise to continue the good fight on behalf of our friends and neighbors who struggle to pay the bills, access healthcare and affordable education required to meet Minnesota’s demands of the future. Democracy is a messy business but it is imperative that we engage. One thing is certain. In the days to come the list of announced candidates eager to represent the 8th District will grow. I will be making a decision within the next week.”

Lee left the news business last year with the stated goal of becoming more involved in politics. With widespread name recognition, she could have a dramatic impact on the race.

Jeff Anderson

Also thinking about a run, former Duluth city councilor and Nolan’s district director Jeff Anderson.

Anderson hails from the Vermilion Range city of Ely. He is a military veteran with business experience. He was the first openly gay member of the Duluth city council.

Anderson ran for Congress in the 2012 DFL primary, a paradoxical world where he was the “pro-mining” candidate and Nolan was labeled “anti-mining.” It just goes to show how meaningless and misleading these labels are in describing a complex issue. In any event, Anderson finished a close third and ended up working for Nolan over his three terms in office.

Tony Lourey

Another name that’s jumped in recently: State Sen. Tony Lourey of Kerrick.

Lourey and his wife have run the Askov American newspaper and another business. They live on a family farm, from a long line of back woods farmers and political rabble-rousers.

Lourey is a progressive senator who has focused on single-payer health care policy. He initially said he wasn’t interested in running, but is apparently now thinking about it.

Lourey succeeded his mother, the well-known progressive leader Becky Lourey, in the State Senate in 2006. He’s held this mostly rural, somewhat conservative seat ever since.

Kirsten Hagen-Kennedy

Meantime, Nolan invited North Branch Mayor Kirsten Hagen-Kennedy to be his guest to the State of the Union address just last week. She, too, is reportedly considering a run for Nolan’s seat.

Hagen-Kennedy is a first generation immigrant from Norway who was elected mayor in 2014. North Branch is in the southern part of the Eighth, a swing city in a very conservative portion of the district.

Will all of these folks run? Certainly not. Several of them have overlapping support. But obviously even if only two or three do, we still find ourselves in a complex primary race.

GOP primary, too?

Pete Stauber

Already in the race: Pete Stauber, a Duluth police captain and St. Louis County Commissioner from Hermantown. He was lining up for a run against Nolan, but now finds himself in an even juicier pickup opportunity for the GOP.

Shortly after Nolan’s announcement, the Minnesota Republican Party issued a statement essentially backing Pete Stauber:

“Today’s news of an open seat in Minnesota’s 8th District is yet another boost to Republican prospects in 2018. Minnesota’s 8th District was already a top pickup opportunity in the country for national Republicans, and today’s news positions 8th District Republicans like Pete Stauber, in an even stronger position. We are looking forward to bringing new, Republican representation to Northern Minnesota in November.”

Stewart Mills

But that didn’t stop former nominee Stewart Mills from announcing he was thinking about getting back in the race. Mills, a wealthy business owner, has the benefit of being able to run without a lot of fundraising. You might remember that Mills left the race with some unkind comments about the GOP establishment, which may (or may not) hurt him if he does run.

Others speculate that House Speaker Kurt Daudt might run, since he lives on the edge of the district. Daudt has been mulling a run for governor, so this could just be speculation static. Nevertheless, the addition of Mills and especially Daudt would create a very competitive primary on the GOP MN-8 ballot as well.


  1. I have heard that Lourey is being pushed pretty hard by a lot of DFL leaders to enter as a potential actual unifying candidate with enough weight to at least partially clear the field. Of the people who have indicated interest so far, he probably has the most impressive credentials and record by a pretty wide margin.

    There is a lot of activity going on behind the scenes, with the Lourey candidacy upwelling being just the most open example of Party officials, politicians, activist groups, and ordinary voters working to try to convince various people to make a run.

    In the GOP, if Mills decides to run, he has two enormous advantages over Stauber and others. The first is that he has far and away better name recognition and branding. Stauber’s family name is well known in parts of the district, but Mills is undoubtedly well known to anyone who cares even remotely about politics. In addition, Mills can reach into his own personal pocket for seed money to start a campaign and for bridge money during times of acute need, either in the form of “loans” to his campaign or actual donations. I personally expect him to enter the race, since he has made a tremendous personal investment over the years in this seat, and I would be surprised if he would just stand aside when the seat is in full play.

    Meanwhile, Michelle Lee is a very interesting wild card. This is going to be a wholesale, not retail, level election, with voters getting their exposure to candidates primarily through media and advertising, not door knocking and meet and greets. Lee has had a long and successful media career, and has a level of skill and comfort in that area no one else can claim. In addition, for a large number of people in the district she is a figure who people already know and like. For a lot of people who have watched her over her long career she is going to register emotionally like a friend, not another politician.

  2. Today’s DNT carries a quote from Daudt that makes it sound like he is seriously considering a CD8 run:

    “I haven’t really done that thinking yet,” Daudt said, “but I have received a few phone calls that got me to think about it.”

  3. I dont’ think Daudt should run. He’s in the district but he’s in a portion which is not very representative of the bulk of the district. Stauber may not be well known in Crow Wing and Morrison counties but he’s a good fit. It might benefit the GOP to have someone with ties to St. Louis County.

  4. Bonnie Lokenvitz says

    Beside Leah Phifer and Tony Lourey do any of those potential candidates acknowledge there is a southern half of CD8?

    • I would suspect that Mayor Kennedy from North Branch is very familiar with the southern half of the 8th CD.

    • Michelle Lee lives in Moose Lake, the most Southern part of Carlton County. She absolutely knows there is more to the 8th than Duluth and the Range!

  5. What needs to be reported is the dramatic enthusiasm gap between Leah Phifer’s supporters and those of Rick Nolan at last weeks caucuses. As an incumbent Nolan had a large, established and extremely well funded organization behind him, yet he was out performed in many key districts.

    In his withdrawal statement Nolan clearly recognized this enthusiasm gap when he said ” there is a time and purpose for everything and now is the time to pass the baton to the next generation.”

    That a grass roots and minimally funded candidate could out perform a sitting incumbent speaks volumes about the viability of Leah Phifer as a candidate as well as the timeliness of her message.

    The DFL leadership needs to understand that a Rick Nolan clone will not generate the enthusiasm needed to win the day in November and retain the 8th.

    • I think Republicans are also quite enthusiastic about nominating Phifer.

      • and Democrats a quite enthusiastic about Mills entering the race…peace-out

      • independant says

        I cant see Phifer being a good choice for the DFL in the 8th district. Not if Stauber is the Republican nominee. She wouldn’t maintain or sway any new voters to the DFL in the 8th only loose those labor voters from the iron range that don’t want someone to blindly say no to all new mining projects and exploration. If the 8th is a swing district with iron range labor union support, the DFL can say goodbye if they take labors support for granted.

    • I think you are right, jg, in identifying the problem the DFL is facing in this race, but have only expressed part of it.

      The DFL should be able to win CD8 this year in a laugher. The district has an historic DFL edge. Nolan carried the district in 2016 in the face of a Republican tsunami in the state, with Trump carrying the district. This year so far looks like it’s going to be good times for the DFL.

      But as the famous saying goes, all politics is local, and in CD8 we have a great illustration of that. The non-ferrous mining issue has created a split down the center of the district DFL. Both sides have hardened into rigid positions.

      I agree with Aaron’s observation that the nearly 40% of the straw poll that went to Liebling and Otto is a pretty good surrogate measure for the strength of Phifer against Nolan. I also would guess that the 60% that went to others is a pretty good surrogate for Nolan support. Those numbers are right on the knife edge for endorsement versus blocking endorsement. I suspect that the likelihood that he would first fail to win the endorsement in a hung convention, then be at high risk to lose the election due to defections from Phifer supporters to Skip Sandman was, in fact, a significant part of Nolan’s decision to retire, of course adding in the mixture of family health issues, his own age, and the frustrations of life in today’s federal government.

      Any candidate who ends up winning the primary and the DFL nomination is going to have to face the same problem. A pro-copper mining candidate will risk the departure of large numbers of environmentalists to a third party or to staying at home. An anti-copper mining candidate will risk the loss of large numbers of pro-copper mining Democrats to either the GOP candidate or again to staying at home. Some of that same polarization may well seep into the governor’s race as well.

      The predictable result will be, as someone said on an earlier thread, that the DFL will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

      It is going to be the job of whoever ends up with the nomination to thread that needle. Phifer, in fact, appears to me to be doing a good job of being all things to all men at this point. Her overall statement on mining on her web site echoes the standard pro-mining position of praise for Minnesota’s regulation efforts and a call to let that run its course, but her vocal opposition to the two laws Nolan sponsored to override the process in the Twin Metals permit issue and the Polymet land swap excited the opposition to copper mining into seeing her as their ally. As Bill Hansen said on another thread, perhaps an insistence on following the protocols is all anyone on either side can hope for at this point, but i am suspicious that when these positions are held up to the light, neither side will end up happy.

      The DFL in CD8 is living in exciting times.

  6. I mostly a democratic voter, but I am not sure I could support Leah Phifer. I want to trust her, but I just don’t. If she ends up being the candidate on the ballot, I hope she can make me believe different.

    • Amy..Leah is young, fresh and new and does not have the connections available to the old guard. Reach out to her. She will reach back.

  7. Leah is basically running on one issue. Connections to the “old guard” are certainly not a bad thing. They know how things work in real life politics.

    • Jackie…so true, it is called the old boys network. The one issue they are running on is good old boys and good OLD thinking. We need new voices and new thinking!

      • By “new thinking” you mean what specifically? Not being flippant, I would really like to know. I have poured over Phifer’s web site, her blog about driving around the district, and Twitter feed, and aside from the comments on the two Nolan bills, everything Phifer says on the web could be on any generic DFLer’s page, whether old boys or young women. So far, none of her supporters, and I have talked to several, are able to be more specific either. Perhaps she is saying things in personal meetings that are more detailed and different, and does not want to share that on the internet? The only other thing I have found from her is an old article (Feb 2017) by her on Minnesota Post that is a defense of ICE and its raids. That did represent some new thinking from a DFL point of view, but not in a way most progressives would agree with.

    • Cyndy Martin says

      I agree. I want someone who has worked and is involved in the District.
      Someone who knows CD 8, who has proven to be resilient and educated in more than 1 issue.

  8. I am about as far from a good old boy as you can find. As a middle aged mom and grandma, I am worried because Leah Phifer’s website uses some weird language about “water being in her life” (or something like that). I worry that she would vote in ways that would harm my children and grandchildren who live here now. For the same reason, I will never vote for Rebbeca Otto.

  9. Ok, let’s ask Leah:

    Is she for or against the recent federal tax reductions
    Is she for or against returning some federal lands back to the states
    Is she for or against illegal immigration
    Is she for or against repatriating the billions of corporate dollars sitting overseas
    Is she for or against the bonuses being given out by hundreds of companies
    Is she for or against putting American interests, in foreign and domestic affairs, first
    Is she for or against school choice

    If she’ll answer those in a straight forward manner, then we can get into social issues of:

    Do all lives matter or just black
    LG, Sony or LGBTQIAPK
    What kind of cakes bakeries can make
    The issues Rangers really don’t give a s**t about, until some group or politician makes it an issue. Like Radinovich did..

    • Most of those are pretty generic issues for both parties. I would expect any DFL candidate, old boy or young woman, to point out that over 90% of the federal tax cuts for individuals go to the most wealthy people, that the new policies for taxes on repatriating “overseas” profits as well as associated rules for depreciation and expenses actually pay American companies to send jobs overseas, that using newfound profits for stock buybacks so far actually outweighs employee bonuses by 300 to 1, and so on.

      The question about immigration is a very important one for Phifer, albeit with a lot more detail required. Her career with ICE and the op-ed she wrote last February for the Minnesota Post raise a lot of questions about how her ideas fit with those of many Democrats.

      The question of her stance on abortion and whether she advocates spending public tax money for private schools, and the nuances of any stance on those things, are important questions.

      There is a lot to be discussed in foreign policy about just what American interests are, and that discussion is important. For example, is it in America’s long term interest to develop close relationships with autocratic governments that abuse their own people, knowing that historically that has resulted in severe anti-American beliefs on the part of most of their citizens, often leading to the rise of extremist and terrorist groups? Is it a good idea to continue to pour blood and treasure into wars we are clearly losing, while again alienating the population and strengthening the hand of extremist groups?

      Most of this is off topic for this blog, except to suggest that it is incumbent on the DFL and GOP candidates now flocking to the race for the vacant CD8 seat to make themselves clear on these issues, and for voters and partisan actors to be clear on just what the candidates believe.

      Not just Leah Phifer, but the whole list.

      • Most would argue that the recently passed tax bill will promote U.S. job growth. Most believe the economy is stronger due to the recent tax bill. 80% of Americans will personally see thousands of dollars of tax benefits due to the new tax bill. If the “richer” see a tax decrease also, who cares. I’d contend the “poor” see the greatest percentage tax decrease. But this is a great example of how quickly we “identity politicize” an issue. Then use talking points…and get nowhere.

        So…back to asking – “does Leah support increasing or decreasing taxes from their current levels?”
        And I agree, all candidates should make clear their positions, but especially the DFL’ers. Their parties platform is a single issue – “hate Trump”. What they’re for is a mystery.

  10. The latest rumors on the CD8 DFL race are that DFL leadership are suggesting that Erik Simonson, first term state senator and former two term state representative from Duluth, consider running, on the grounds that if he won, his state senate seat would be safe, whereas Tony Lourey’s seat would be vulnerable for a GOP pick up. Duluth has a genuinely deep DFL bench of potentially strong candidates for the seat, including two state reps who have pulled two to one and greater margins in elections, plus a number of others.

    Simonson’s close connections with the union movement — he was leader of the Firefighter’s Union in Duluth and played a large role in making them an important player in Duluth DFL politics — combined with his reliably progressive record might help him bridge the yawning non-ferrous mining chasm in DFL CD8 politics.

  11. Leah
    We’ve been having a discussion on various DFL candidates for the 8th district. We’ve speculated on where candidates stand on important issues and thought we’d ask you directly. Your position on key issues such as the following are important to us.

    Are you for or against the recent federal tax reductions?
    Are you for or against returning some federal lands back to the states?
    Are you for or against illegal immigration?
    Are you for or against repatriating the billions of corporate dollars sitting overseas?
    Are you for or against the bonuses being given out by hundreds of companies?
    Are you for or against putting American interests, in foreign and domestic affairs, first?
    Are you for or against school choice?

    Thanks in advance for responding. You can follow the discussion we’ve been having on Aaron Brown’s blog, Minnesota Brown.
    Refer to the article entitled “Candidates mull suddenly wide open MN 8 race”.

    I’ve sent Leah the above note. Based on my past communications with her, she’ll respond. If not on Aaron’s blog but to me directly, I’ll pass it on..

    • I guess you are not getting a reply
      She went to an extensive FBI school, but only worked on the job as an FBI agent for less than two years. Seems like her immigration and boarder patrol jobs before that were somewhat menial. I’m sure she would like us to believe that she didn’t like what she was seeing in the USA, so she wanted to get a job where she could change the laws to fix the flaws she was seeing, but not sure I’m buying it. Seems more like a person in their early 30s who isn’t happy in any job, so keeps trying things hoping something will make her happy. Probably a slightly more impressive resume than Radinovich though – unless you value career politicians.

  12. How coincidental Gray Camp. I just received this afternoon the following from Renee Cardarelle, an employee or volunteer working for Leah. (Leah used to answer my questions herself).
    Thanks for all the indepth questions. So far Leah has addressed issues through her issues page on her website:
    I will pass on any unaddressed issues. Keep tuned to the website for additional insights.
    Thank you for the suggestions.
    Renee Cardarelle”

    Thanks Renee..
    I’ve read through Leah’s position on “Issues” on her website. Based on that, I’ve summarized her positions on the issues I’ve asked about as noted below. When she takes a position on repatriation of corporate money sitting overseas and returning more federal lands to the states, please let me know.

    We’ve been having a discussion on various DFL candidates for the 8th district. We’ve speculated on where candidates stand on important issues and thought we’d ask you directly. Your position on key issues such as the following are important to us.

    Are you for or against the recent federal tax reductions? Leah’s position: against recently passed federal tax reductions
    Are you for or against returning some federal lands back to the states? Leah’s position: unknown
    Are you for or against illegal immigration? Leah’s position: for illegal immigration
    Are you for or against repatriating the billions of corporate dollars sitting overseas? Leah’s position: unknown
    Are you for or against the bonuses being given out by hundreds of companies? Leah’s position: against bonuses
    Are you for or against putting American interests, in foreign and domestic affairs, first? Leah’s position: against putting America first
    Are you for or against school choice? Leah’s position: against school choice

    • I don’t mind a discussion, Bob. But this is hokum. Limit your Greek chorus to measurable concepts devoid of hyperbole. We get it. You don’t like her. You already annotate my comments here. You need not add the contents of your email inbox.

      • Drilling down, asking basic questions, to find out where the candidates sit isn’t hokum Aaron. It’s what you, we all, should be doing. Actually, I don’t dislike her, she seems like a nice person. But her position on issues of “free everything” and placing herself left of crazy Bernie are frightening and won’t serve her well…hopefully. As Churchill said – “The main vice of capitalism is uneven distribution of prosperity. The main vice of socialism is the even distribution of misery.”

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