GOP Eyes Trump District as Minn. Democrat Retires

GOP Eyes Trump District as Minn. Democrat Retires
AP Photo/Jim Mone
GOP Eyes Trump District as Minn. Democrat Retires
AP Photo/Jim Mone
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Minnesota Rep. Rick Nolan, one of a dozen Democrats representing districts President Trump won in 2016, announced his retirement Friday, opening up a critical target for Republicans as they try to preserve their House majority.

Nolan, who has represented the district since 2013 (he held another seat three decades earlier), called it an “agonizing” decision to retire at the end of this term, but added: “There is a time and a purpose for everything and now is the time for me to pass the baton to the next generation.” He likely faced a difficult road to re-election in a district that swung sharply to Trump in 2016, but had experience winning tight races even in years that were difficult for Democrats nationwide.

Republicans cheered the retirement and were bullish on their chances to flip the seat. Nationally, far more Republicans than Democrats have announced retirements this year, opening up several critical swing districts that Democrats are targeting in hopes of winning the majority. But Nolan’s decision provides an opportunity for the GOP to pick up the seat, which could help protect against a Democratic wave. 

Democrats held 12 districts that Trump won in 2016, and Nolan’s is one of four that are now open races: One district in Nevada, one in New Hampshire and a second in Minnesota are all GOP targets. Nolan’s 8th Congressional District, which covers the Iron Range in the Northeast corner of the state, is likely the most favorable for Republicans.  

Kyle Kondik, an elections analyst at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the race was a tossup before Nolan retired, and would stay that way even as an open seat.

“Given how close the House could be, one seat here or one seat there could basically make the difference,” Kondik said. “It’s a good development for Republicans even if in my eyes it doesn’t necessarily change the rating there immediately.”

Democrats have a long history of winning races in MN-8 – a Republican was elected in 2010 and served a single term, the only time the GOP held the seat in more than six decades. President Obama won it twice, and statewide Democrats have carried the district easily in recent years. But the Republican victory in 2010 may have been a harbinger of a rightward swing, as Trump won the area by nearly 16 percentage points and Nolan won by less than two in both 2014 and 2016.

“Rick Nolan, too liberal and out of step with his deep red district, saved us the trouble of defeating him this fall,” said Matt Gorman, a spokesman for Republicans’ House campaign committee. He touted the GOP recruit there, Pete Stauber, a former professional hockey player and Duluth police officer who currently serves as a county commissioner. Stauber raised just over $118,000 in the fourth quarter of last year, and had $137,000 in the bank.

“This seat was already one of our best pickup opportunities and we look forward to turning this seat Republican in November,” Gorman said.

Democrats already had one additional candidate in the race: Leah Phifer, a Minnesota native and former official with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security in her native state. It’s possible Democrats may seek to recruit other candidates to the race, however, with the filing deadline not until early June. Several state lawmakers from the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party represent areas within the congressional district.

Democrats are optimistic they can retain the seat, though it will be a more expensive and difficult race without an incumbent. But the national environment is likely to favor their party, and the top of the ballot in Minnesota could be a factor. Two incumbent Democratic senators – Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, who replaced Al Franken following his resignation – are both up for re-election, and there is a competitive governor’s race as well. 

Kondik said it might have been a good year for Democrats to see Nolan retire since the party has a better chance to retain the seat without an incumbent in a positive midterm environment, as opposed to in 2020 with Trump on the ballot and likely carrying the district again.

 “Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District is a Democratic seat, and that certainly will not change in 2018,” said Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, the chairman of House Democrats campaign committee. “We look forward to electing another Democrat to represent the hardworking people of northern Minnesota, who can carry on Rick’s legacy.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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