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Nolan squeaks past Mills to win reelection to U.S. House

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After midnight, Nolan addressed the press.
After midnight, Rep. Rick Nolan addressed the press, saying he was going to go to bed and acknowledging that the count was very close. Photo taken at the Arrowwood Lodge in Baxter, Minn. on Nov. 8, 2016.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan eked out an exceptionally narrow reelection victory over Republican Stewart Mills in Minnesota's 8th District. The race lived up to expectations that it would be one of the most competitive House battles in the country.

According to preliminary vote numbers from the Minnesota secretary of state, Nolan held off Republican Stewart Mills' rematch by just a little more than one-half of 1 percent — close, to be sure, but not close enough to prompt a state-financed recount.

Nolan's campaign said the congressman was sleeping when the result became clear early Wednesday morning. By midmorning, Nolan was talking to reporters at a resort in Baxter, outside Brainerd.

"We always seem to get outspent in campaigns and elections," he said, "but they never manage to outwork us."

Mills chose not to meet with reporters after all the votes were counted. Early in the morning, though, Mills told reporters it was looking like Nolan would win. He called Nolan a skilled politician.

"He has held office since before I was born," Mills said. "He knows what he is doing. He is one tough customer. I have a lot of respect for him as a politician, but on the policy side I disagree with him completely."

Nolan got back into politics in 2012 when he defeated Republican Chip Cravaack in the 8th district. Prior to that, Nolan served three consecutive terms in Congress beginning in the early 1970s.

Stewart Mills addresses his supporters.
Republican Stewart Mills addresses supporters shortly after Minnesota polls closed as he arrived at a brewery in for his election night rally Nov. 8, 2016.
Jim Mone | AP

Plenty of 8th District voters who supported Nolan also voted for Republican Donald Trump. Nolan, who backed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential nomination battle, said voters are unhappy with the way Washington does business and they're not looking for more of the same.

"They want a change agent," he said. "I think they view him and they view me as agents of change."

According to Federal Election Commission numbers, through mid-October, Mills was outspending Nolan by about $3 million to Nolan's $2 million. And the race attracted about $15 million in outside spending. Nolan said all that money is corrupting politics.

And he said campaign finance reform is one of several areas he thinks he might be able to work on with Trump and his supporters.

  Nolan said Americans would welcome getting big money out of politics.

"They want to see the political system changed because they think it's rigged and they're right," Nolan said. "It benefits the rich and the powerful and it hurts the many and they want to see that change. They want to see a change in the trade deals, and I'm hopeful that we can kill the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement. I look forward to working with President-elect Trump on that."

Yet he also expressed concern about what Republicans might try to do with control of the House, Senate and White House.

"If, on the other hand, he and the Republicans want to privatize Social Security and Medicare, I'll fight him all the way on it," he said.

Nolan, 72, said he has no plans to leave Congress in two years. For his part, Mills is not ruling out a third run against Nolan.

"I'm never shutting the door on anything, I'm never ruling anything out," Mills said. "Never say never."

Nolan isn't the only Democratic incumbent in Minnesota who narrowly won reelection. In a race that wasn't even on outside groups' radar, Tim Walz nearly lost to Republican Jim Hagedorn in southern Minnesota.