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The Re-Education of Rick Nolan

The Re Education of Rick Nolan
Nolan came back to Congress in 2012 — three decades after his first stint in the 1970s. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Minnesota Democrats have two problems: The 8th District has changed, and Rep. Rick Nolan doesn’t want to.

The Gopher State Democrat returned to Congress in 2012 after a three-decade hiatus. This November, Nolan faces first-time candidate and wealthy businessman Stewart Mills in a historically strong Democratic district that encompasses Minnesota’s Iron Range.

But the district has become increasingly competitive in recent years, and sources from both parties question Nolan’s willingness to adapt to the requirements of a high-stakes, 21st century re-election campaign. Democrats highlight Nolan’s strong retail campaign skills and say they admire his principles — but others say a modern re-election requires more than that.

“Rick Nolan is really more interested in governing than in self-preservation,” said Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chairman Ken Martin in a Tuesday phone interview. “He is more interested in doing what he thinks is right and letting the chips fall where they may.”

National Democrats took notice: On July 18, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced Nolan joined its Frontline program for the party’s most vulnerable incumbents.

But privately, some Democrats expressed further annoyance with the congressman, who first served three terms starting in 1974.

“The race is in play because Rick is a very old school politician and doesn’t believe in a lot of the things that members of Congress have to do in tight districts,” said one senior Democratic strategist in the state. “There are some very frustrated people here.”

The first complaint among those frustrated Democrats? Nolan’s attitude toward fundraising.

“He does not want to fundraise. He finds it very distasteful,” said former Democratic activist and area journalist Aaron Brown in an interview with CQ Roll Call. “While he’s a lovely retail campaigner, in this day and age, it’s tough when you need a million bucks or more.”

Mills raised $60,000 more than Nolan in the most recent fundraising quarter. The Republican has brought in more cash than Nolan in three out of the past four reporting quarters.

That’s unusual for an incumbent — especially a Democrat — this cycle. According to analysis by CQ Roll Call, the average Democratic incumbent in a competitive race had $1.4 million in cash on hand at the end of the last reporting cycle. Nolan reported $580,000 in the bank at the end of June.

What’s more, many of Nolan’s top advisers sometimes hail from his previous stint in Congress: His chief of staff, communications director, scheduler and legislative director all worked for him in the 1970s.

After almost a week of repeated efforts to schedule an interview, Nolan’s campaign told CQ Roll Call the congressman was “too busy with official business” but might be available “later on, as the campaign picks up.”

In a written response, Nolan campaign manager Kendal Killian said the congressman “has always put the people of the district ahead of Democratic Party operatives. . . . We will have the resources we need to show the strong contrast between Rick Nolan and our multimillionaire opponent.”

Mills has loaned more than $100,000 to his own campaign and is expected to give more.

But for concerned Democrats, fundraising is only part of a broader problem: They said Nolan isn’t willing to make smart political choices when they conflict with his principles.

For example, Nolan joined just three other House Democrats voting against a 2013 appropriations bill that funded the Department of Veterans Affairs. None of the other dissenters — Reps. George Miller of California, Karen Bass of California and John Conyers Jr. of Michigan — faced difficult re-election battles.

Nolan said the vote was meant as a protest of insufficient funding for the department.

But for Republicans, the vote makes for ammunition in 2014. Mills, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee and the state Republican chairman all mentioned the vote unprompted in recent interviews with CQ Roll Call.

Not long ago, the 8th District might have been safe for a retail Democrat with a penchant for protest votes and a distaste for fundraising. The Iron Range was a blue-collar Democratic stronghold with strong ties to organized labor. Republicans hadn’t held the seat for more than 60 years — until recently.

Republican Chip Cravaack defeated longtime Rep. James L. Oberstar in 2010, a blockbuster year for the GOP nationwide. But Minnesota strategists said Cravaack’s victory was more than the result of a national trend.

Over time, the conservative southernmost part of the district, which borders the 6th District currently held by retiring Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has grown in size and influence. The Democratic grip on the Iron Range is losing its hold.

“The Democrats in the 8th District are not necessarily liberal,” said Republican strategist Anne Neu, who managed Cravaack’s 2010 campaign. ”They are Blue Dogs. I think we will continue to see a shift there.”

Ultimately, the district still has a Democratic tilt. Obama carried the district by 7 points in 2012. The race is rated Leans Democratic by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.

Perhaps most importantly, Nolan will benefit from an influx of resources from better financed statewide Democrats who need to turn out votes on the Iron Range.

“There’s no doubt that [the 8th District] is ground zero for Democrats this election cycle,” Martin said.

Both Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Gov. Mark Dayton, well-financed incumbents, are counting on Democratic voters on the Iron Range for statewide turnout, and their campaigns are expected to make big investments in the area.

Former Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn., who remains optimistic about Mills’ chances, said Democratic frustration with Nolan won’t keep them from investing heavily in the District.

“In Minnesota they can’t give up on the 8th District because they wouldn’t have any stronghold outside of the twin cities,” Weber said. “That would be a historic thing.”

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