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Did the NRA really defeat Minnesota politicians who favored gun control?

Revisiting those races with Warren Spannaus, Don Fraser, Joan Growe and Ann Wynia.

Does history show that the NRA can politically destroy those who defy them in Minnesota?
REUTERS/Tami Chappell

With Vice President Joe Biden releasing his recommendations for gun control measures today and the National Rifle Association girding for political war on whoever supports them, the question of the political power of the gun lobby is front and center.

Even in a relatively liberal state such as ours, legends exist of the power of those who believe in an extremely broad reading of the Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms.” Does history show that the NRA can politically destroy those who defy them?

Exhibit A for that legend in Minnesota is probably the case of former Attorney General Warren Spannaus and the 1982 DFL primary for governor. Despite being the DFL endorsee, a very popular three-term attorney general and a rising DFL star, Spannaus lost the primary to former Gov. Rudy Perpich, who went on to win easily win the governorship.

As attorney general, Spannaus had been a champion of gun control bills that became law. During his primary race against Perpich, the NRA helped launch a campaign called “Dump Spannaus,” that included pictures of Spannaus against a bull’s-eye target.

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When I asked Spannaus about it last week, he joked that the “Dump Spannaus” campaign was so ubiquitous in rural Minnesota that he ran into people who thought “Dump” was his first name. It’s more complicated than this, Spannaus acknowledges, but he does believe that the NRA played a key role in defeating him and ending his promising career in elective politics.

But I also talked to three other major DFLers of his generation, liberals who supported gun control and who lost statewide races. I was surprised that none of them felt that the gun issue had played much of a role in their defeats.

Don Fraser

In 1978, U.S. Rep. Don Fraser was the DFL endorsee for the unexpired portion of the U.S. Senate term of the late Hubert Humphrey. He had overwhelming backing among liberals. Like Spannaus, Fraser was challenged in the primary – in his case by businessman Bob Short.

Former Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosFormer Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser

As Perpich did against Spannaus, Short focused on the DFL electorate in Duluth and the Iron Range. Fraser outpolled Short by a large margin in the Twin Cities metro area, but Short narrowly defeated Fraser by piling up big margins on the Iron Range. He racked up those margins by portraying Fraser as too liberal on social, religious and environmental issues.

But, to my surprise, when I asked Fraser last week what role gun policy had played in Short’s attacks, he couldn’t recall any at all.

“He had a number of ideas that I strongly disagreed with,” said Fraser. “Gun control probably was one of those but I couldn’t single it out. He may have talked about the gun issue as part of the general portrait he was trying to paint of me, and it may have had a cumulative impact” in portraying Fraser as an out-of-touch liberal.

As MinnPoster Iric Nathanson (who worked for Fraser at the time) has written, Fraser had championed the cause of wilderness protection for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). The wilderness designation curtailed the use of motorboats and snowmobiles in the BWCA, which was perceived in northern Minnesota as placing Twin Cities environmental values above the recreational pursuits of the area’s residents. Fraser was also a supporter of abortion rights, which Short was not. The BWCA and abortion issues seem to have been the key to Fraser’s defeat, not guns. (Short went on to lose the general election to Republican Dave Durenberger.)

Joan Growe

After Fraser in 1978 and Spannaus in 1982, long-time Secretary of State Joan Growe was the next popular Twin Cities liberal DFLer to lose statewide, when the DFL endorsed and then nominated her in 1984 to challenge incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz. She lost that race by a wide margin, but she doesn’t recall gun politics causing her any problem at all.

Growe’s candidacy was historic. She was the first woman ever to gain a U.S. Senate nomination in Minnesota. But to get that far, she had to win a very tough, 19-ballot endorsement battle over Jim Oberstar. The big issue in that contest, she recalls, was her support for and Oberstar’s opposition to abortion rights. In the primary, she was challenged by State Treasurer Bob Mattson, Jr. Mattson did try to score some points against Growe as a gun-control advocate, she recalls.

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“He had a series of one-page flyers against me on five issues,” she recalls. “Choice. Gun. BWCA. Leghold traps. And one more that I can’t think of right now.”

As Short and Perpich had done against Fraser and Spannaus, Mattson focused on the Iron Range, where he apparently hoped to offset Growe’s strength in the metro. “I don’t think it [the flyer on gun issues] had any impact. He didn’t carry a single precinct in the primary, not even in the Eighth District,” she said.

The general election was never close, Growe acknowledged. Boschwitz was the more experienced candidate, at least in Senate-race terms, and he outspent her seven to one, she said. It was the year of Ronald Reagan’s 49-state landslide and she got thumped by Boschwitz.

As Growe and I chatted, I asked her why she supposed that the gun lobby had done so much more against Spannaus than against her or Fraser. Well, Spannaus was truly more identified with the gun issue, she said, but she also suggested that my questions had bought too deeply into the theory that Perpich’s victory over Spannaus was all about the NRA.

Perpich was not just any challenger, she said. He was a former governor with a well-known name, a big network of supporters and plenty of money. To the degree that he beat Spannaus on the Iron Range, well, Perpich was a Ranger himself with a natural affinity for that subculture. Spannaus was identified with the Twin Cities, where he did very well. Perpich was the first gubernatorial candidate to take a woman as his running-mate, Growe mentioned, which generated some excitement and support. Her own recollection of Perpich’s campaign was that he talked only about three issues, as the old joke goes, “jobs, jobs and jobs.” And that seemed to resonate with what the primary voters wanted to hear.

Ann Wynia

The last retired politician who was kind enough to reminisce with me about unsuccessful campaign was Ann Wynia, the 1994 DFL nominee for U.S. Senate. After a political career in the Legislature, which included a stint as majority leader, Wynia was defeated by Republican Rod Grams, a former TV news anchor and congressman. Grams won by 49-44 percent.

Wynia said the gun issue was almost certainly a factor in her defeat, but she wouldn’t want to exaggerate how big a factor. As a legislator, she had voted for bills the NRA opposed and opposed bills the NRA supported. It wasn’t so much an issue that she emphasized as simply a part of her voting record that some voters and some interest groups liked, and some didn’t. At the time of her Senate race, the federal crime bill working its way through Congress banned military-style assault weapons, and banned youth from owning hand guns. Wynia supported it.

“The NRA and the gun manufacturers are very exploitive,” Wynia said. “Their purpose is to make money and gain power. Their best method is to play on people’s fear, and that’s what they do.”

Ann Wynia
mnscu.eduAnn Wynia

Wynia, who recently retired from the presidency of North Hennepin Community College, told me she is not “living in that part of my life these days” and doesn’t dwell much on her 1994 defeat. When she does think about it, she mostly attributes her loss to bad timing. The year in which she ran became known as the “Republican (or Gingrich) Revolution,” when the Repubs gained 54 seats in the House to take control for the first time in years, and gained eight seats in the U.S. Senate. She believes that her 5-percentage point loss may have been the best showing by a non-incumbent in any Senate race in the country.

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In any event: “Every time somebody blames the gun lobby for their defeat, it only helps the gun lobby,” she said. “I’m not interested in doing that for them.”

Nonetheless, she couldn’t resist telling the story of a rally on Election Day eve. She had, of course, a full day of final campaign appearances ending with a midnight rally with Northwest Airlines union members in a big hangar where maintenance was done on planes. Northwest was in the process of moving some maintenance jobs to Mexico to save money on wages, and Wynia was trying to talk about what she would do to try to save their jobs.

“And I kept getting these people yelling back at me. ‘What about our guns?’ And I tried to say to them: ‘What’s more important to you, your job or your guns?’ And a bunch of people yelled back: ‘Our guns.’

“So did the gun issue have an impact on my race? Oh sure. But do I think that a person who supports reasonable positions on firearms and things like large ammunition clips can’t win an election? Oh no, I don’t believe that.”

Back to Spannaus

When I talked to Warren Spannaus, I told him what the other DFLers had said about their races, and even what Growe had said about the Spannaus-Perpich race. He didn’t disagree. Of course Perpich was a tough opponent, and of course he had special appeal on the Iron Range and of course guns were not the only issue.

But he nonetheless believes the gun lobby’s campaign against him was the biggest reason he lost, and he doesn’t think his case resembles the Fraser, Growe or Wynia races because he was so closely identified with the gun control issue, a stance of which he remains proud.

“My position going back since 1970 [his first election as attorney general] has always been very strongly pro gun control,” Spannaus said.

Of course, his emphasis was always on gun control, especially hand-gun control, as a crime-prevention measure. He believes that his proposals would never have interfered with hunters’ ability to enjoy their sport.

But in his 1982 race for governor, the NRA made him “the poster boy on that thing.” And they told a lot of lies that made hunters think Spannaus was coming after their rifles. “I remember clearly, people saying that I was trying to take their gun away: ‘I’m a hunter and I don’t want you taking my gun away.’

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“It’s hard to chase a lie,” he said he learned that year, because as you clarify the issue, the other side just changes to a new lie.

He also believes that his case is different from those of Growe and Wynia because the attack on him occurred in a primary race where a relatively small number of very motivated guns-rights voters can magnify their impact. “Aginners always vote in primaries,” he said. “Most of them are single-minded people and they think about it morning noon and night.”