Mining, BWCA and Trump: 5 reasons Rick Nolan's announcement is a big deal

ST. PAUL-U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democrat from northeast Minnesota, announced Friday, Feb. 9, he won't seek re-election.Nolan, who has served off and on in Congress since 1975, said his decision was based on a desire to spend time with his family...
Rick Nolan
Rick Nolan

ST. PAUL-U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democrat from northeast Minnesota, announced Friday, Feb. 9, he won't seek re-election.

Nolan, who has served off and on in Congress since 1975, said his decision was based on a desire to spend time with his family and "pass the baton to the next generation." It also means the 74-year-old won't have to try to fight off a primary challenge and a Republican opponent in a part of the state that went heavily for President Donald Trump.

Make no mistake: Nolan's decision - which surprised many political observers - is a game-changer not just for his district, but potentially for the landscape of Minnesota, politically and literally. Here's why:

Possible gain for Republicans

The Nolan news means Republicans now see an excellent opportunity to gain a seat in Congress.

Nolan represents Minnesota's 8th Congressional District, a huge swath that includes an array of locales such as the Iron Range, Brainerd, Mille Lacs County and Chisago County in the far north metro.

Some of those areas are longtime Democratic strongholds, some are heavily Republican. The district has swung back and forth like the mood of a Vikings fan.

Longtime Congressman Jim Oberstar, a Democrat, was ousted by Republican Chip Cravaack in 2010. In 2012, Nolan, a longtime politician who served in a different U.S. House seat from 1975 to 1981, beat Cravaack. In 2016, Nolan narrowly fended off a challenge by Republican Stewart Mills, but Trump trounced Hillary Clinton by 16 percentage points in the same district.

Without having to take on an incumbent with name recognition like Nolan, Republicans see an opportunity.

Crazy campaign coming

If you live in the 8th, you might want to buy a bigger mailbox for all the campaign literature that will be flooding the area.

Minnesota was already shaping up to be a national focus of major political parties and outside groups. Among the wide-openness: an open governor's seat; the departure of former U.S. Sen. Al Franken; an open seat of U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a southern Minnesota Democrat running for governor; at least two other highly competitive U.S. House races; and a one- or two-vote Republican margin in the state Senate.

And now the 8th. Because the southern end of Nolan's district reaches into the metro TV market, Twin Cities residents should brace themselves.

Mining politics

Two plans for new mines are polarizing many Minnesotans, and both are in the 8th District. PolyMet is proposing a copper-nickel mine in the Lake Superior watershed, and Twin Metals is eyeing a mine that would extract copper, nickel and precious metals from the Superior National Forest just outside - and upstream of - the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Mining splits the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Traditionally, Iron Range DFLers, including some labor unions, favor mining, while the environmentalist wing of the party, especially metro residents, oppose it. Republicans generally favor the mining proposals. Nolan, who has been friendly to the mining plans, was already facing a primary challenge from Leah Phifer, a political newcomer who opposes both mines. St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber - the leading Republican candidate for the seat - favors the mines.

If there were any tea leaves in Tuesday night's DFL precinct caucuses, there was this: State Auditor Rebecca Otto, who has positioned herself as the most strident environmentalist and opponent to the mining plans, won the straw poll for governor in the 8th. It was the only congressional district that Walz did not win. Walz has been receptive to the mining plans.

Boundary waters and environment

There are more than just mines and mining plans in the 8th District. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Superior and Chippewa National Forests, as well as Lake Superior and Voyageurs National Park, are among the federally regulated natural gems in the area that host the largest populations of moose, wolves and other wildlife and natural resources in the state. The "hometown" member of Congress can wield considerable influence on issues that range from the protected status of wolves to use of motors on federal lands.

Trump effect

Large numbers of voters in the 8th District split their tickets in 2016, voting for Trump (R) and Nolan (D). What will that mean this year? Will Trump energize Democrats? Has the district swung further right, including traditionally left-wing unions? Is there a notable dissatisfaction among Trump supporters? And who will show up at the polls?

No one knows.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service