The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, Stephen Wolf, and Carolyn Fiddler, with additional contributions from David Jarman, Steve Singiser, Daniel Donner, James Lambert, David Beard, and Arjun Jaikumar.
● MN-08: In an out-of-the-blue development on Friday, Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan announced his retirement from Congress, delivering a rare piece of potentially unwelcome electoral news for House Democrats. Nolan’s 8th District, which stretches across a wide swath of mostly rural northeastern Minnesota, saw the third-biggest swing toward the GOP of any congressional district in the 2016 presidential race: While Barack Obama had carried this district by a 52-46 margin in 2012, four years later, it veered sharply toward Donald Trump, who won it 54-39. That meant the 8th was always going to be a difficult hold for Democrats, and without Nolan, that task may have just gotten harder— but there’s still plenty of reason for hope.
Last year, Nolan weighed a bid for governor but ultimately opted against it and made it sound as though he’d run for re-election. However, his mind evidently changed. “I always said when I lose my energy and enthusiasm for the job, or the prospects for handing the baton looked really good, I would move on,” explained the 74-year-old Nolan. “Both of those occurred together.” Nolan, who has been very public about his daughter’s struggle with incurable lung cancer, also referenced the importance of his family in making his announcement.
Nolan’s path to the 8th District was as unusual as they come: He was first elected to Congress in a different seat all the way back in 1974 as a so-called “Watergate baby,” serving three terms in what was then the 6th District in central and southwestern Minnesota before declining to seek a fourth in 1980. More than three decades later, though, he decided to make a comeback after Republican Chip Cravaack stunned 18-term Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar in the 2010 GOP wave. Nolan, who said fellow Watergate baby Oberstar had encouraged him to run, beat two other candidates in a close primary, then rendered Cravaack a one-term wonder, unseating him by a comfortable 54-45 margin.
But Nolan’s next two elections, both against wealthy businessman Stewart Mills, were hair’s-breadth affairs. Nolan survived the 2014 wave by less than 1.5 points, but 2016 was even closer, and Nolan escaped by just half a percent. That outcome was fortunate but unsurprising: As we noted that summer, the 8th District is overwhelmingly white and rural, and it’s also less affluent and less well-educated than the nation as a whole. In addition, its economy is heavily dependent on extractive industries, particularly mining. In other words, it’s almost the archetype of the sort of white working-class area that was primed to respond to Trump’s message.