Editor’s Note: This story is part of our Running Women project following 15 compelling women candidates in 2018.

Former congressional candidate Leah Phifer talks with Cass County delegates and DFL party members. (Credit: Leah Phifer campaign page)
Leah Phifer speaks with Cass County delegates and DFL party members. (Credit: Leah Phifer campaign page)

There was a memorable motorcycle tour, a successful caucus night, an incumbent dropout and a clear lead during theDemocratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s endorsement convention. Yet Leah Phifer, a former FBI analyst who resigned to run for Congress from Minnesota, decided to end her campaign Wednesday.

Phifer led in all ten rounds of voting held at the convention on Saturday, receiving 52.1 percent of delegate votes at one point. But she failed to surpass the 60-percent threshold of support required to win the official endorsement of the party, and, as such, faced a primary race against fellow Democrat Joe Radinovich, the former campaign director of her district’s incumbent congressman.

Instead of taking on a primary fight, Phifer withdrew. “After assessing resources and potential primary election strategies, I have decided not to move my candidacy forward for this seat,” she wrote on her campaign Facebook page. “Without party resources behind us, the path to victory grows very narrow, and I cannot ask my family, friends and supporters to continue on for what will surely be a challenging campaign season.”

A High-Stakes Race

The race for Congress in Minnesota’s sprawling 8th District has become one of the most closely watched races of the 2018 midterm election. The district voted for President Barack Obama in 2012, but in 2016 gave President Donald Trump a 15-point margin win. This year, it has been labeled a toss-up.

The district has never been represented by a woman in Congress — and Phifer aimed to change that by succeeding three-term incumbent Democrat Rep. Rick Nolan. “While our people and economy had grown more diverse, the short list to succeed Rep. Nolan didn’t reflect that diversity. I wanted at least one name on that list to reflect the voices of those traditionally underrepresented in our district and our country,” Phifer wrote on Facebook ahead of the endorsement convention.

When Phifer entered the race after her 80-day motorcycle listening tour, she was the only person challenging Nolan for the Democratic nomination.

While Minnesota congressional candidate Leah Phifer held the lead at the DFL Party convention, she did not receive the 60-percent support needed to automatically win its endorsement.
Graphics by Bernadette Berdychowski

Phifer’s campaign said in a press release that she made a “strong start” toward securing the party’s endorsement after winning over a number delegates and a large turnout of supporters at a caucus on Feb. 6. Three days later, Nolan dropped out of the race. Phifer was only briefly alone before Radinovich, Nolan’s 2016 campaign manager, announced he would run. He was soon followed by Michelle Lee, Kirsten Hagen Kennedy and Jason Metsa.

After the first ballots were cast at the April 14 convention, Metsa, Lee and Kennedy dropped off, leaving Phifer and Radinovich to face each other. But while Phifer held the lead, she did not receive the 60 percent of delegate votes needed to automatically secure the endorsement without a primary election scheduled for August.

Following the convention, the Phifer campaign said it would take some time to evaluate its prospects before filing to compete in the primary. “We came so far, even with modest financial resources, because of hard work, a message people believed in and a candidate who knows and believes in her district,” the campaign wrote on Facebook.

Metsa and Radinovich outraised Phifer as of the end of March. Radinovich raised a total of $108,000 compared to $125,000 for Metsa and $81,700 for Phifer.
Metsa and Radinovich outraised Phifer as of the end of March. Radinovich raised a total of $108,000 compared to $125,000 for Metsa and $81,700 for Phifer. (Source: Duluth News Tribune.)

Phifer told the Duluth News Tribune that she believed some people blamed her for Rep. Nolan’s retirement. “They’ve teamed up with people outside the district to provide a front that’s distracting from the real issues in the 8th District. I don’t want that. There are very real issues affecting the district.”

In her concession on Facebook, Phifer told supporters that she hopes the next representative of the district will stand up for what she fought for, including women’s equality and the environment. “I was once told there is a very close relationship between how people treat women and how they treat the earth — we’ve seen that play out very clearly the past several months. Please continue to fight for both; I know I will.”