On paper, Rick Nolan’s congressional career should have ended on Tuesday night. The incumbent Democratic congressman in Minnesota’s 8th district has always been on political thin ice in a district on the edge. Hillary Clinton got destroyed in this sprawling, 17-county rural district: four years after Obama carried it 51-46, it went for Trump by 16 points. While local candidates proved more resilient, Trump clearly had down-ballot effects in the state legislature and other Minnesota congressional races, with attrition from the DFL across the board. Democrats lost some ground on the western side of Minnesota 8, particularly around Grand Rapids. Nolan beat his opponent, Stewart Mills, by a razor-thin margin in 2014. He didn’t have much ground to give in this year’s rematch.
Little about Nolan’s biography suggests he should have won, either. He’s not some rural, conservative Democrat like, say, Joe Manchin of West Virginia: on most issues he’s basically a standard-issue liberal, and is even further to the left than his longtime Democratic predecessor Jim Oberstar, who was ousted in the 2010 Tea Party wave, on issues like abortion. He’s 72, and as a visting friend noted, his yard sign design looks like it’s straight out of his first congressional campaign in in 1972. He’s no social media darling of the youth a la Bernie Sanders. He’s had a few private sector jobs, but for the most part he’s spent his adult life as a politician and general policy wonk, an endangered species in 2016. He grew up in Brainerd, which is one of the most conservative parts of the district, and his first stint in Congress took place when Brainerd was in a different district; his political roots are not deep in the vast majority of Minnesota 8. His motto, “Minnesota Tough,” belies a thin, aging frame and a nasally voice.
Nolan’s opponent, Stewart Mills, was formidable. He polished himself up from his losing run two years ago, both in terms of his looks (goodbye, weird long hair) and campaign operation. His conservative bona fides were never in question, he never shied away from Trump’s coattails, and the demographics of the district were in his favor. The heir to the Fleet Farm fortune, he could self-finance a lot of his campaign. While Nolan had plenty of outside money pouring in, Mills outspent him by a 3-2 margin in what wound up being the most expensive congressional race in the entire country. By the end, a resident of Minnesota 8 couldn’t go through a single commercial break during a football game without seeing an ad bashing Nolan, funded either by the Mills campaign or a Super PAC.
The indicators aren’t all bad for a Democrat in Minnesota 8: it has a larger city in Duluth that is consistently and solidly Democratic, labor still has power on the Iron Range, and some rural areas like the North Shore of Lake Superior maintain a decidedly crunchy, liberal vibe. The lack of a Green Party candidate this time around probably also helped him. (Though only somewhat: I’m guessing that a number of the die-hard Greens in Duluth sat this one out, given Nolan’s support of mining.) There are very few people of color in Minnesota 8, and turnout drop-offs here hurt Clinton nationally, though Nolan still outpaced Clinton in the part of Duluth that does have a somewhat sizable non-white population. But in a sweeping wave election, it shouldn’t have taken much to oust Rick Nolan.
Yet Nolan persevered. He did it the old fashioned way: with barnstorming tours, patient conversations, and by building trust. I saw his blue bus rumbling around Duluth a number of times, and its frequent presence took me back to a certain Minnesota senator’s green bus we used to see in these parts, another man who, on paper, seemed too liberal to ever win in the region. Mills, on the other hand, copied Clinton in its narrow guardedness, and refusal to let him see the media or encounter people who might disagree with him. Mills’ ads were of the vicious variety we’ve come to expect in a bloody campaign (Nolan brings Syrian terrorists to Minnesota! Nolan votes against veterans’ care!), looking to tar Nolan as a weak liberal. Mills even doubled down on the Syrian refugee angle, so if some latent fear of brown people was the main motivator for the sea change in the presidential race, one would assume this would continue down ballot. (Hint: it wasn’t.) Nolan’s most frequently run ads, on the other hand, involved him sitting and talking with groups of people or behind the wheel of his car, simply talking to the camera. Aside from making one want to yell at Nolan to keep his eyes on the road, these ads did muster a certain genuine quality that Mills’ never quite did.
Nolan’s record was the most important part of his win: he’s very good at getting things done for the people that Hillary Clinton’s Democrats too often left behind. His vote against veterans’ care was, in fact, a protest vote against the lack of resources, and he was able to communicate this. He was a crucial figure in the re-imposition of U.S. steel tariffs, which helped bring about a partial economic recovery from last year’s dire straits on the Iron Range. He pushed through policy changes that streamlined logging industry logistics. One key policy difference separated him from doctrinaire Democrats: unlike many Twin Cities and even Duluth liberals, Nolan supports expanded mining operations. He is careful to emphasize a more responsible version of that mining support than Mills’ unequivocal stance, but there was no underlying doubt, no awkward statement about coal country like Clinton had. While this lost him some support on the left fringe, his firm support for mining kept him from losing ground on the Iron Range.
This isn’t to suggest the Nolan campaign was a loving tea party. It, too, had heaps of money, and returned fire without abandon. Black signs appeared all over the Range in recent weeks that drove a stake into Mills: “Stewart Mills III Supports Chinese Steel.” (The inclusion of the ‘III’, which he also did in his attack ads, was a subtle but clever dig at Mills’ inherited wealth, and almost certainly played well on the Range.) It had its vicious negativity, but the negativity was very carefully targeted, and Nolan knew his audience in the land where the American steel supply chain starts. Instead of blasting his opponent as a standard-issue member of the opposite party, Nolan nailed Mills specifically on issues that played to the voters he needed; the ones most vulnerable to flipping. Outside of the very red extremities of the district where Clinton had basically zero support, nowhere did he run up his margin on Mills versus Clinton’s margin against Trump more than on the Range.
Part of Nolan’s success was strong turnout in the Duluth area, where he improved slightly on his 2014 performance, even in the outlying townships that trend further to the right. But even in a random sampling of Duluth-area precincts, Nolan only ran somewhat ahead of Clinton. On the Range, however, his margins from two years ago all held up, even as Trump made major gains. Part of this is a reflection on Hillary Clinton, a singularly terrible candidate for rural Minnesota 8, but Nolan’s resistance outperformed everyone. He made gains in the four bluest counties in the district—Carlton, St. Louis, Lake, Cook—which combine for 40 percent of its population, and were enough to withstand further erosion in the rest. He turned out his base, and the people he’d built a relationship with over time. This is where Nolan fundamentally bucked the trend.
Time will tell if Rick Nolan is a model for Democratic resurgence, or simply the last roar of a fading dynasty. If the Democratic Party doesn’t reform itself, this hold in Minnesota 8 may prove short-lived. Nolan’s age may become a factor before long, too. Republican gains across the district, and the general improvement in the caliber of GOP candidates, are a good thing for democracy, lest places like the Range calcify into one-party rule where politicians aren’t held accountable. But the Democrats still have a lot to work with here, and a reasonably deep bench. Erik Simonson and Jason Metsa offer a new generation of the old labor leadership, while popular figures like Don Ness and Carly Melin, still quite young, could someday re-enter the arena. Duluth city government is brimming with young DFLers who could someday be in a position to win, so long as they can maintain an appeal to the whole MN-8 electorate. The DFL has cultivated a fresh, new generation of politicians in the region, which is a lot more than can be said of the national party in some places.
If the Democratic Party brass has any brains, it will look to people like Rick Nolan to learn how to rebuild from its 2016 defeats. The answer doesn’t come through a full-scale ideological move, or reliance on a demographic shift that may or may not materialize at the ballot box. It comes by abandoning any hint of condescension, or lectures on how failure to support the right candidate is in some way a moral failing. Instead, it lasers in on the most important issues to voters and backs them up with action. It involves a willingness to fight, sometimes even to fight dirty, but only in select battles that the candidate can be sure to win. It means getting out into communities, because the basis of all campaigns remains fundamentally local. Rick Nolan isn’t perfect, but he understands the landscape, and because of that, he’s lived to fight another day.