Mills-Nolan recount in MN 8th may start Monday

Stewart Mills greets supporters on election night.
Republican Stewart Mills, left, greets supporters shortly after Minnesota polls closed as he arrived at his election night rally.
Jim Mone | AP

One of the tightest and most expensive congressional races in the nation will get a second look starting next week as Minnesota officials begin a one-by-one review of nearly 357,000 ballots cast in Minnesota's 8th Congressional District.

Republican challenger Stewart Mills, who lost to incumbent DFL U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan by roughly 2,000 votes, intends to pay for the recount in what was a caustic rematch that drew more than $22 million in candidate and outside group spending.

Nolan's victory over Mills was more surprising this year compared to 2014 because Republican Donald Trump swamped Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the district by more than 50,000 votes. It was a 16 percentage point advantage for Trump that didn't lift Mills to victory.

That's among the reasons why Mills said he wants a closer look.

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"Now we are well within the margin where a hand recount, where human eyeballs on every ballot could make the difference between victory and defeat," he said.

He's not alleging fraud or impropriety. But he said people might not have properly darkened ovals or could have left stray marks on their ballots that confused the counting machines. Both sides will be able to challenge ballots where they believe voter intent isn't clear.

Democrat Congressman Rick Nolan
Democrat Congressman Rick Nolan waits to be interviewed by a TV station in the early evening prior to his election night rally.
Jim Mone | AP

"It's definitely possible," Mills said of the chances of a recount overturning the result. "We would not be doing this if it wasn't possible. I'm not going to predict success because we are obviously coming from a place of disadvantage. We're a half-percentage point behind."

Because the difference between Mills and Nolan isn't closer at the outset, it doesn't qualify for a taxpayer-funded recount. That means Mills will have to use either personal or campaign funds to pay for it.

State Elections Director Gary Poser is still gathering information from the 18 northern Minnesota counties involved to determine how much time they'll need and how much Mills will be charged.

"I believe what I've gotten so far is in the $75,000 to $80,000 range," he said.

That includes estimates from only about 10 of the counties, but the preliminary tally does contain an estimate for the largest, St. Louis County.

But it doesn't cover the expense the campaigns will incur. Nolan is already gearing up to raise money, said his campaign manager Joe Radinovich.

"This is as far as we are aware an unprecedented recount request," said Radinovich. "We are not aware of any other recounts outside the margin that were paid for by a challenging candidate. And so we will, through counsel and our efforts, chase every effort to make sure we can pay for this recount as well."

Minnesota has had its share of big recounts in the past decade. In 2008, DFLer Al Franken overtook Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman in a hand recount of about 3 million ballots. But only a couple hundred votes separated them going in. Two years later, a recount helped affirm a narrow victory by Democrat Mark Dayton in the governor's race.

The goal is to complete the 8th District recount by Dec. 12.

Radinovich is confident that the DFL incumbent will prevail, but not taking anything for granted.

"We're going to recruit all of the volunteers we need, and we're going to also utilize probably a network of attorneys, perhaps on a volunteer basis for some of them, to make sure our interests are represented in the process," he said.

MPR News reporter Mark Zdechlik contributed to this report.