The announcement last week that Eighth District Congressman Rick Nolan will not seek re-election this fall was unexpected, but hardly a surprise. While Nolan had previously announced that he planned to seek a fourth term, a combination of his daughter’s current health struggles and growing dissatisfaction within his own progressive base had undoubtedly affected his enthusiasm for what was widely expected to be a brutal re-election effort.
While politicians always cite a desire to spend time with family when they leave the public stage, we believe Nolan, now 74, is sincere when he made a similar claim last week.
The timing, coming in the wake of last week’s precinct caucuses, suggests that the intra-party battle was going to be a bigger challenge than Nolan might have initially realized. The congressman faced an endorsement challenge from former FBI national security analyst Leah Phifer, who was well-organized going into the caucuses and came away with a significant number of delegates. Exact numbers won’t be known for certain until those delegates gather at future conventions, but anecdotal reports point to a strong showing for Phifer.
Nolan almost certainly faced a tough fight in the general election as well, in large part because of his decision to align himself politically with the anti-public lands agenda of a handful of far-right Western Republicans, including Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The otherwise progressive Nolan found common cause with this small group of radicals over his own efforts to short-circuit due process in regards to copper-nickel mining projects in the Superior National Forest.
His actions shocked many progressive DFLers, most of whom strongly support maintaining and protecting public lands and are skeptical, at least, of copper-nickel mining proposals in the region. While most had been willing to live with Nolan’s general backing of new mining projects in the past, his more recent actions were widely viewed as simply too extreme. Many vowed they would never vote for Nolan again. In a district where the DFL needs every base voter to win, it could well have been fatal. It was that concern that prompted Phifer to enter the race.
Regardless of his reasons for retiring, Nolan’s departure is certain to widen the field of candidates and all but guarantees a bruising primary fight. And the copper-nickel divide within the party is likely to be front and center in that battle, even though DFLers largely agree on a long list of other political issues. Candidates entering the fray would be wise to learn from Nolan’s miscalculation on the issue. Residents of the Eighth District cherish their public lands and support for sulfide-based copper-nickel mines is not nearly as strong in the district as some folks seem to believe. Indeed, among DFLers outside the Mesabi Range, large majorities of DFLers oppose sulfide-based mining, according to recent polls.
While his backing of sulfide mining at all costs came to be seen as a defining issue for Nolan, in most other ways he will be remembered as a strong progressive voice in Congress during his time representing the Eighth District. As a Bernie Sanders supporter, he backed a transition to a “Medicare-for-all”-style single-payer health insurance system, wisely fought against foreign military intervention, and was a tireless advocate for sensible campaign finance reform. Having also served in Congress in the 1970s, Nolan was in a unique position to recognize the degree to which big money had changed Washington and its priorities over the past few decades, and he spoke out about the harm it was doing to the country. His perspective, on that and other issues, will undoubtedly be missed in Washington.