They probably hadn’t seen the latest Rasmussen poll showing Norm Coleman 50, Al Franken 43, when they wrote the piece, but the editors of the Evans-Novak Political Report (we’re talking conservative bigfoot Bob Novak) lists the Minnesota U.S. Senate race as leaning Democratic.
From what I’m hearing about the race, I’m not persuaded. (None of the other major political tip sheets rank the race as leaning Franken’s way. I’ll list their rankings below.) But in arguing that Coleman is in trouble, Novak made an interesting historical point about Minnesota Senate seats. They change hands A LOT, and in recent history, Senate incumbents have been reelected very seldom.
Intrigued by this notion, I spent a little time sorting out recent Minnesota election history and comparing it to other states. The results, while I wouldn’t say they tell us anything reliable about the Coleman-Franken race, were in the category of interesting political trivia to know and tell.
Starting with the election of 1970 (that was the year Eugene McCarthy decided not to seek a third term and his seat went to Hubert Humphrey, who had interrupted his first tenure in the Senate to become vice president in 1964) and up to the present, 13 different folks have represented Minnesota in the U.S. Senate. That’s more than any other state during the same period. There weren’t any other states that scored a 12, only one that scored an 11 (surprisingly, North Carolina) and three 10s. But the average across all 50 states for the same category (numbers of U.S. senators since 1970) was 6.8. The least promiscuous state, West Virginia, has limited itself to just three senators in that span, and there were a whole lot of 4s, 5s and 6s.
(If you are among the politically-obsessed, feel free to see if you can name the 13 Minnesota senators. I’ll post the list below. But if you want full credit, you’d better take the test now, since most of the names will be mentioned just ahead. Yes, I am counting McCarthy as one, since he was in office at the beginning of 1971.)
Now there’s a lot of noise in these numbers that has nothing to do with a fickle electorate. Two senators (Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone) died in office so two senators (Muriel Humphrey and Dean Barkley) served briefly to fill out an unexpired term and then didn’t seek election. One senator (Walter Mondale in 1976) left in the middle of a term because he had just been elected vice president so one senator (Wendell Anderson) was appointed (self-appointed, say those of us who recall the details) to serve out Mondale’s term.
But three of the senators (Anderson in 1978, Rudy Boschwitz in 1990 and Rod Grams in 2000) actually were defeated while seeking reelection and two others (Dave Durenberger in 1994 and Mark Dayton in 2006) retired because they were in such political tough shape that they didn’t believe they could win reelection. Meanwhile, only four times (Boschwitz in 1990, Durenberger in 1982 and 1988, and Wellstone in 1996) were senators reelected during that time span, which covers 15 Senate races.
Considering that nationwide the average reelection rate of senators is between 75 and 80 percent, according to U of M political scientist Kathryn Pearson, who specializes in Congress, this still means that Minnesota is much, much less prone than the average state to reelect its senators.
Pearson and polysci superguru Larry Jacobs found my historical numbers mildly amusing but didn’t buy the notion, strongly implied in the Novak piece, that this had anything to do with the Coleman-Franken race.
If Coleman is vulnerable (as he is universally believed to be) it is because he is a one-term Republican incumbent, carrying the weight of a discredited Republican president, a bad economy and an unpopular war in a somewhat purplish but Dem-leaning state in what is shaping up to be a very Dem-favorable political environment.
In closing, I promised you two things.
Other than Bob Novak’s newsletter, the best-known political tip sheets that rate the Senate races say the following about Coleman vs. Franken: Cook Political Report: toss-up. Rothenberg Political Report: Narrow Advantage for Republicans. Larry Sabato’s Political Crystal Ball: Leans Republican. Congressional Quarterly: No clear favorite. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza’s blog, “The Fix,” rates Coleman’s seat the sixth likeliest Senate seat to change parties this year. Given the full context, I would translate that as “toss-up.”
Minnesota’s 13 U.S. senators since the 1970s:
The seat currently held by Dem. Amy Klobuchar was previously held by Dem. Mark Dayton (2001-2007), Repub. Rod Grams (1995-2001), Repub. Dave Durenberger (1978-1995), Dem. Muriel Humphrey (1978), Dem. Hubert Humphrey Jr. (1971-1978) and Dem Eugene McCarthy (1959-1971). That’s seven.
The seat currently held by Norm Coleman (since 2003) was previously held by Independence-ite Dean Barkley (2002-03), Dem. Paul Wellstone (1991-2002), Repub. Rudy Boschwitz (1979-1991), Dem. Wendell Anderson (1976-78), Dem. Walter Mondale (1964-78). That’s six more for a total of 13 senators since 1970.