Minnesota

A guide to the swing states.
Oct. 18 2004 1:35 PM

Minnesota

The only state to oppose Reagan flirts with conservatism.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Quick, name a politician from Minnesota. Here are the ones that spring to my mind: Paul Wellstone, Jesse Ventura, Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy. What all these men have in common is that none is a Republican. In fact, except for the independent Ventura, they're all Democrats.

Andy Bowers Andy Bowers

Andy Bowers is the executive producer of Slate’s podcasts. Follow him on Twitter.

Expand the pool to famous Minnesotans in general, and you get similar results: Comedian and Air America host Al Franken; public radio's Garrison Keillor, author of the new book Homegrown Democrat; and, of course, Bob Dylan.

As for nationally known Republican Minnesotans, the best I could come up with was the late Harold Stassen, famous as the nation's perennial presidential candidate, and who was actually pretty liberal.

Minnesota's presidential voting record also suggests steadfast blueness. It has gone Democratic in every election since 1960, with the sole exception of 1972. Think what that means: Minnesota was one of only 10 * states to favor Michael Dukakis in 1988 and the only state to pick Mondale over Ronald Reagan in 1984.

And yet Minnesota is up for grabs this year. To someone like me who lived in the Twin Cities in the 1980s and remembers Minnesota as flyover country's liberal redoubt, this came as a surprise. But I should have looked a little harder. Far from sudden, the change has been sneaking up on us for a while.

Minnesota earned its liberal reputation in the mid-20th century with its robust Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party—formed in 1944 when the state's Democrats merged with the progressive Farmer-Labor Party. But following DFL founder Humphrey's death in 1978, Republicans started doing better in Minnesota politics. Since that time, the state has elected four GOP U.S. senators and only two Democrats. (Currently there's one of each.) The state House, long dominated by the DFL, now has a Republican majority. In the same period, Minnesotans have chosen three Republican governors, one Democrat, and Ventura in 1998. The incumbent is a young, photogenic Republican named Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty isn't the kind of fiscally conservative, socially moderate Republican, like Arnold Schwarzenegger or George Pataki, that you'd expect in a liberal state. Pawlenty has signed bills allowing concealed weapons and imposing a 24-hour waiting period for abortions, and he supports a ban on gay marriage.

Pawlenty was elected in 2002, which brings us to another political factor that has hurt Minnesota Democrats. If Howard Dean is still trying to live down The Scream, Gopher State Dems shiver at the mention of The Uncivil Memorial.

It followed the death of Democratic U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone and some of his family members in a plane crash 12 days before Election Day. Mondale agreed to step in and run in Wellstone's place. But at a televised memorial service for the late senator, supporters booed GOP dignitaries, and the service devolved into something like a partisan rally. Many swing voters were troubled. Republican politicians and talk radio hosts howled their indignation, and the event quickly gained more infamy than it probably deserved. Mondale lost a close race to Republican Norm Coleman, and Pawlenty captured the governor's office being vacated by Ventura.

The question is, were those GOP victories a fluke caused by the memorial's backlash, or a trend? The chair of Minnesota's Republican Party, Ron Eibensteiner, says that his party's polls showed both Coleman and Pawlenty ahead even before Wellstone's death. He says the memorial had only a marginal effect, and that the real story is that today's GOP better reflects the values of Minnesotans. But his Democratic counterpart, Mike Erlandson, is going with the fluke theory. He says his polling showed Wellstone and, later, Mondale ahead before the fateful service. "Sometimes those events that you have no control over politically impact the election more than anything else," Erlandson says ruefully.

Part of the problem for Erlandson is that the demographics that made the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party a symbol of cutting-edge coalition-building in the 1940s no longer obtain in Minnesota. "Farmers and organized labor are a shrinking part of the population," says Larry Jacobs, director of the 2004 Election Project at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute. "And the Democrats have been in search of a new coalition that will give them the platform to consistently win elections."

By contrast, Jacobs says the Minnesota GOP is dynamic and has decided to "leapfrog [to] a new generation of Republican leaders who have a homegrown mix of conservative policy issues on gay marriage, on abortion, as well as a very conservative position against taxation, with some centrist policies on health care and education." Pawlenty has broken with the White House and jumped on the drugs-from-Canada bandwagon, "brazenly bucking federal law" by launching a Web site for state residents to buy cheap meds from over the border.

There's more good demographic news for the Republicans. Seventy percent of recent population growth in Minnesota has occurred in outer-ring suburbs near the Twin Cities. These young suburbanites pouring into new beige tract houses are solidly Republican: culturally conservative, concerned about security, and less interested in Humphrey's prairie populism than were their parents, who worked in the mines and factories. The 3M Company symbolizes the state's changes. Those three Ms stand for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing. But now the company is known for that staple of modern cubicle life, the Post-It Note.

So trends aren't exactly going the Democrats' way. But the Twin Cities and the once heavily unionized northern area known as the Iron Range will go solidly for Kerry, possibly by a big enough margin to offset the exurbs. There are two big wildcards: First, Ralph Nader did very well here four years ago, winning 5.2 percent, and he's on the ballot again. Second, Minnesota is one of only seven states that allow Election Day registration, and in 2000, nearly 20 percent of voters didn't register until they showed up at the polls. That means a last-minute surge or mistake or catastrophic event could tip things dramatically.

Still, the famously reserved Minnesotans sometimes just seem to enjoy electing maverick firebrands, regardless of party label. And they may soon get a chance to do it again.

To the roster that includes Humphrey, Wellstone, and the gaffe-prone wrestler Ventura, voters could add the name Al Franken. The Harvard-educated comedian is considering a run for the Senate against Coleman in 2008, and the Democrats are ecstatic. When Franken broadcast his Air America show from Minneapolis last week, the 1,000-seat hall was packed and boisterous. His appearance at the state fair last summer also got lots of attention. Republicans seem to take his run so seriously that state chair Eibensteiner is already calling Franken a "carpetbagger" from New York, which is where Franken was born, although he grew up near Minneapolis. But is that really the best argument? Coleman also hails originally from New York, and (unlike Franken) he has the accent to prove it.

Does Franken have a chance? Could he breathe new life into the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party? As they like to say here, you betcha!

Correction, Oct. 20, 2004: This article originally stated that Michael Dukakis won nine states in 1988. He won 10 (and the District of Columbia). (Return to corrected sentence.)

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