Rep. Richard Nolan (D-Minn.) holds a unique distinction among the nearly 11,000 people who have served in the U.S. House of Representatives, but that may not be enough to stave off a young and wealthy Republican challenger who is said to look like Brad Pitt.

Nolan, who left Congress in 1981 after serving three terms from central Minnesota's 6th Congressional District, was reelected in 2012 from the state's northeastern 8th District. That won him a place in the history books as the member with the longest gap in House service.


According to the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress, Nolan's 32-year absence is longer than of any of the 10,818 people who have served in the House since 1789. The closest anyone comes to matching his record is Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania, a Democrat turned Republican who was Speaker when he was defeated in 1862, and returned to Congress nearly 31 years later.

But the 70-year-old Nolan, who would be tied for fifth in seniority with George Miller (D-Calif.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) if he had stayed in Congress and won reelection ever since, faces a formidable challenge from Republican newcomer Stewart Mills, 42, in what most political observers agree is a toss-up.

The 8th District, which borders Canada, Lake Superior and Wisconsin and is dotted with farms, pine-fringed lakes and iron ore mines, was a Democratic stronghold for more than a half century until 18-term Rep. Jim Oberstar was upset by Republican Chip Cravaack in 2010 – whom Nolan then defeated in 2012.

But now it's a swing district that has become one of the most expensive House races in Minnesota history and one of this year's 10 races that have attracted the most outside money, more than $1 million dollars for each candidate. The Cook Political Report and The Washington Post have both declared it a toss-up.

I talked with Nolan on Sept. 18 at one of his fundraisers on Capitol Hill — he was one of 140 House members who held fundraisers last week — and he told me that Congress no longer resembles the institution that he left in 1980.

"Running for Congress is about raising money now," he said. Nolan has called the current House of Representatives "the most undemocratic institution that I have ever served in" and says "he prefers the old days when members of Congress stayed in Washington longer, debated everything, and were handily able to get federal funding for their districts."

He told the story of serving as a freshman on a late-night conference committee on an agriculture bill chaired by Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. John McClellan (D-Ark.), with Sens. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.) and George McGovern (D-S.D.), and wondering "what am I doing here?"

The committee was trying to reconcile more than 80 Senate and House bills, including one that allowed casein to be used in making ice cream. When Humphrey asked for a recess, McClellan objected, but Humphrey insisted he needed only 10 minutes, which he used to serve the committee ice cream sundaes, as proof that casein wasn't needed for making ice cream. The casein amendment was defeated.

"We don’t see that kind of give and take in Congress anymore," Nolan said. "It's a totally different place where compromise is a dirty word."

But to the long-haired Mills — who has a personal fortune of between $46 million and $150 million, according to reports he filed with Congress — Nolan is "part of the problem" in Washington, as he told the Star Tribune (Minneapolis). "He's abused the vote we've given him in Washington [D.C.]."

But even if Mills, aided by the comparison with a movie star along with and widespread disapproval of Congress, succeeds in his challenge, Nolan would have an opportunity to win another place in the history of the House of Representatives. He could regain his seat in 2016, which would give him a total of 34 years watching Congress from the sidelines.

Eisele is editor-at-large of The Hill.