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The state of Minnesota is, in some ways, the last place youd expect to find national Republicans meeting. Sure, its competitive politically on the state and local level. And every presidential election year, Republicans talk boldly about winning the states 10 electoral votes.
But the simple fact is that a GOP presidential nominee has not carried Minnesota since 1972. 1972!!! If you dont count the District of Columbia as a state and thats a can of worms better left unopened on the eve of the Republican National Convention Minnesota has gone longer without supporting the GOP presidential candidate than anyplace else.
Neighboring states with comparable political profiles havent been so predictable. Wisconsin has only been in the Democratic column since 1988, the past two times by extremely narrow margins. Iowa, after voting for the Republican nominee from 1968 to 1984, voted Democratic from 1988 to 2000, only to swing back, barely, to the GOP in 2004.
So what is it about Minnesota and presidential elections? Lets call it the Mondale Effect. During three straight presidential election years 1976, 1980 and 1984 Minnesota homeboy Walter Fritz Mondale was on the national ballot, twice as the Democratic vice presidential nominee, once as the nominee for president.
Even in the Republican landslides of 80 and 84, Mondale saved his home state for the Democrats. In fact, Minnesota was the only state that voted for Mondale in 1984. That so vexed Ronald Reagan that when he was asked late that year what he wanted for Christmas, he replied, Well, Minnesota would have been nice.
Ironically, though, it was Mondales ascent from the Senate to the vice presidency that helped contribute to Minnesotas status as a political battleground after years of Democratic domination. 1978 was a bad year for Democrats everywhere. But in Minnesota, it was exacerbated by the fact that the states Democratic governor, Wendell Anderson, essentially appointed himself to fill Mondales Senate vacancy.
Actually, Anderson resigned as governor, leaving his former lieutenant governor, Rudy Perpich, to ascend to the No. 1 job in St. Paul. Perpich dutifully appointed Anderson to the Senate and then they both lost bids for full terms in 1978. That same year, Republican David Durenberger won the states other Senate seat, which had been held by another vice president, Hubert Humphrey.
Perpich enjoyed a political comeback four years later. And that helped advance another trend in Minnesota: the colorful character as successful pol.
Perpich was one of a kind, a dentist of Croatian descent who had no close political allies, didnt mind picking fights, and earned the nickname Gov. Goofy.
Perpich tried to sell the governors mansion, wanted to dub Minnesota the Brainpower State, donated $25,000 of his gubernatorial salary to promote boccie ball, and personally stopped speeders on state highways. He was bounced from office in 1990; his Republican challenger became embroiled in a sex scandal, and just weeks before Election Day, the GOP found a squeaky-clean replacement candidate who was strong enough to win.
That same year, another offbeat character won statewide office, fueled by a series of humorous, unconventional ads: A diminutive, left-wing college professor named Paul Wellstone (D) ousted Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R).
Eight years later, another character was elected governor Jesse the Body Ventura, a former pro wrestler who came from nowhere as an Independent to upset state Attorney General Hubert Skip Humphrey III (D) and St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, a Democrat turned Republican. Venturas four years in St. Paul were tempestuous, to say the least.
As Venturas term was winding down, in 2002, tragedy struck the state: Ten days before Election Day, Wellstone died in a plane crash, along with his wife, daughter and some staffers. Coleman won his seat, besting Mondale, who had been recruited as a last-second replacement.
Now Coleman is up for a second term, and he finds himself in a tough race with another genuine character comedian Al Franken (D), a Minnesota native who moved back to the state a couple of years ago after earlier stints at Harvard, Saturday Night Live, Hollywood, and the best-seller list.
Franken is a lifelong liberal activist who has skillfully put together a strong grass-roots campaign operation. But there is little doubt that his past writings and public statements will come back to bite him in the campaign. And hes lucky that Ventura opted out of the Senate race even though the rest of us, from a pure spectators point of view, arent.
So considering Minnesotas colorful and unusual political history, give Republicans credit for meeting there and for trying, once again, to win the state at the presidential level. There are 11 states that havent voted for the Democratic presidential nominee since 1964, and Democrats until Sen. Barack Obamas (Ill.) campaign havent even bothered to try to make them competitive.
Maybe thats why Republicans have won seven of the past 10 presidential elections and why they have some reason to worry this time around.