Feeling Minnesota

Is it possible to understand our state's politics? You betcha.

It's typical of Minnesotans that the highest elective office any of us has achieved is vice president—and we're okay with that. Nevertheless, one of those vice presidents, Walter Mondale, certainly made the most of his time in office. In 1976, he and President Carter transformed the vice presidency from the proverbial bucket of warm spit into a position as trusted advisor and project manager. Mondale was the first vice president to have an office in the White House. He promoted U.S. policies abroad, and was a key part of the negotiations between Egypt and Israel that led to the Camp David peace agreement. Never mind that Mondale was later involved in two of the most embarrassing landslide defeats in American presidential politics (as running mate of Jimmy Carter in 1980, and as presidential candidate against Ronald Reagan in 1984), Mondale's service as vice president has made an indelible mark on modern politics—for good or for evil. If it weren't for Mondale, Dick Cheney would not have been possible.

1978: The Minnesota Massacre

It was one of the most shocking political upsets in Minnesota history. In a post-Watergate election, when Democrats were riding high and DFLers dominated state government, Republicans in a single night swept the state's three top offices—the governorship and both U.S. Senate seats—and nearly doubled their ranks in the state Legislature, pulling even with the DFL. Pundits dubbed it the "Minnesota Massacre," and historians still debate exactly what caused such a radical voter shift. Nationally, soaring inflation and high unemployment under President Carter may have played a role, but more than likely DFLers carved their own tombstone. Two years earlier, Sen. Walter Mondale had been elected vice president, and popular DFL Gov. Wendell Anderson was charged with appointing his successor. Anderson's choice? Himself. In an audacious political maneuver, he resigned his office in a prearranged deal so that Lt. Gov. Rudy Perpich could take his place and appoint him to fill the empty Senate seat. The nakedly ambitious move incensed many voters. Then in January 1978, Sen. Hubert Humphrey died, and Perpich appointed Humphrey's widow, Muriel, to fill his post until a special election in November. Which meant that the state's three top posts were occupied by DFLers who hadn't been elected to those jobs. Compounding the DFL's problem, the primary leading up to the special election was openly contentious, with the winner, conservative DFLer Bob Short, opposed by a large bloc of the party faithful. With public dissatisfaction running high, state Republicans engineered a shocking election coup, with Al Quie beating Perpich for governor, Rudy Boschwitz winning Anderson's Senate seat, and David Durenberger besting Short for the other Senate seat. Statewide, Republicans dominated local elections, too, winning a stunning 37 seats and creating a 67-67 tie in the Legislature.

1998: Jesse Ventura elected governor

When Minnesotans elected a bombastic former professional wrestler as their governor in 1998, the state became a laughingstock around the world. But Jesse Ventura was serious about his politics, and so were Minnesotans. Despite Ventura's woefully underfunded Reform Party campaign, voters responded to a candidate who offered them plain talk, authenticity, and a platform of pragmatic centrism rather than partisan ideology. An aggressive grassroots campaign and clever television spots helped Ventura score his surprising upset against Republican Norm Coleman and DFLer Skip Humphrey. For an extended honeymoon period, Ventura held one of the highest approval ratings of any governor in state history, with political victories that included a tax refund and starting construction of a light rail system. Inevitably, he wore out his welcome with stunts such as moonlighting as a TV commentator for the short-lived Xtreme Football League and with controversial statements like calling organized religion "a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people." For a wrestler, he also had a surprisingly thin skin, which led to a notoriously contentious relationship with the media (reporters were once issued press badges emblazoned with the words "Official Jackal."). Ventura declined to seek re-election in 2002 by claiming media harassment of his family—though critics speculated that a looming budget deficit and steadily plummeting approval ratings might have also played a role. He hasn't been shy about the media since then, however, using press jackals and talk shows to promote a book, make claims that the 9/11 attack was a government conspiracy, and deny, after months of public teasing, that he might run again for governor. He is now reportedly negotiating to star in a Judge Judy-like court TV show.

2002: Sen. Paul Wellstone dies in a plane crash

Governor-elect Tim Pawlenty and outgiong Governor Jesse Ventura in 2002
Associated Press
Governor-elect Tim Pawlenty and outgiong Governor Jesse Ventura in 2002

Only 11 days before the 2002 election, two-term U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone died along with seven others (including his wife, Sheila, and daughter Marcia) in a plane crash in northern Minnesota. The tragedy left Minnesota and the nation stunned and threw the Senate election into turmoil. At the time, Wellstone held a slim lead over Republican rival Norm Coleman. The DFL hurriedly recruited elder statesman Walter Mondale to take Wellstone's place on the ballot, even as family members and party officials planned a massive public memorial. The emotional service was broadcast nationally, but it generated intense controversy after many participants and viewers complained that some of the eulogizers had tried to politicize the occasion, exhorting the audience to use their votes to continue Wellstone's legacy. Gov. Jesse Ventura and others angrily stalked out of the service, and the debate raged for days on radio and TV. In the end, Mondale lost the election by 2 percent of the vote, which many commentators attributed in part to the ill will generated by the memorial. With Coleman's election, the political orientation of the Senate seat took a sharp U-turn, and in some ways the repercussions of Wellstone's death are still being felt. To this day, many of his supporters have never removed the familiar green-and-white "Wellstone!" bumper stickers from their cars, as a tribute to the populist senator.

2002/2006: Tim Pawlenty elected governor

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