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Political mischief: Minnesota’s 1950s experiment with presidential primaries

This year’s exuberant but chaotic precinct caucuses, with their traffic jams and post-it-note ballots, are reviving calls to substitute a direct primary for the party caucuses as a method for determining Minnesota’s presidential preferences during t

This year’s exuberant but chaotic precinct caucuses, with their traffic jams and post-it-note ballots, are reviving calls to substitute a direct primary for the party caucuses as a method for determining Minnesota’s presidential preferences during the run-up to the national nominating conventions.

Only the most senior of this year’s caucusgoers will have participated in Minnesota’s  presidential primaries in the 1950s, which were chaotic in their own way. Then, electoral unpredictability and political mischief-making undermined the leaders of the state’s two major political parties and their carefully laid plans to manage the delegate selection process for the presidential nominating conventions.
The party leaders’ frustrations with the 1952 and 1956 primaries brought Republicans and DFLers together at the State Capitol in rare unanimity to abolish the state’s direct primary system in 1959.

The Republicans had their problems in 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower enthusiasts in Minnesota mounted a write-in campaign for the U.S. general, who was not yet a declared presidential candidate.   That year, state Republican leaders hoped to maintain control of the state’s national convention delegation by lining up behind former Gov. Harold Stassen as Minnesota’s “favorite son.” Stassen may have continued to harbor presidential ambitions after his unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nominations in 1948, but state party leaders saw his favorite-son candidacy in 1952 as a way to maintain control of the Minnesota delegation and exert maximum leverage at the national convention in Chicago.

Eisenhower enthusiasts, not drawn into the machinations of internal party politics, decided to take matters into their own hands. When their petition to place the former general’s name on the Republican primary ballot was rejected by the Minnesota Supreme Court on a technicality, Eisenhower supporters launched their write-in campaign — much to the chagrin of the state’s Republican establishment.

Burger’s convoluted argument
Minnesota’s Warren Burger, then a national vice chairman for Stassen, made the convoluted argument that a write-in vote for Eisenhower was actually a vote against Eisenhower. Burger maintained that a Stassen loss in Minnesota would spill over into Wisconsin and undercut the former Minnesota governor’s effort to block Eisenhower’s chief opponent, Ohio’s Robert Taft, in the upcoming Wisconsin primary.

But William Holbrook, secretary of Minnesotans for Eisenhower, did not buy the argument of the future chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. “Wisconsin is another bill of goods sold to the national Eisenhower headquarters,” Holbrook declared. “Stassen won’t win in Wisconsin. He will be ineffective in stopping Taft.”

“What started out to be a plain, simple understandable presidential primary in Minnesota threatens to wind up as a two ring political circus,” the Minneapolis Tribune observed.

The paper noted that a write-in victory by Eisenhower could lead to a legal muddle and complicate the task of selecting delegates to the Republican National Convention.  The names of the prospective convention delegates pledged to the various candidates were listed on the primary ballot next to the names of their candidates.  However, as a write-in candidate, Eisenhower did not bring prospective delegates with him on the ballot.

The 1952 Eisenhower-Stassen contest was part of the first state-run primary election conducted under Minnesota’s new primary law. A substantial write-in campaign had clearly not been anticipated by the primary’s architects when they won legislative approval for their plan, three years earlier, in 1949.

In the end, Stassen won the March 18 primary, but Eisenhower ran a close second as a write-in candidate, giving his national candidacy a huge boost. Minnesota’s former governor went to the Chicago convention as the state’s favorite son. There, Stassen and the Minnesota delegation cast their votes for Eisenhower on the first ballot.

In the 1952 primary, Minnesota DFLers were united behind their favorite son, Sen.  Hubert Humphrey, who threw his support to Adlai Stevenson at that year’s Democratic National Convention.

1956: DFL’s turn at trouble
Four years later, it was the DFL’s turn to be in the political hot seat, as a party split played out in the 1956 primary campaign.

That year, Gov. Orville Freeman and most top DFL leaders had lined up in support of Stevenson, who was hoping for a comeback after his defeat by Eisenhower four years earlier. But a group of party dissidents, led by Ninth District Rep. Coya Knutson, backed Estes Kefauver, who had made a name for himself as a crusader against organized crime.  The Tennessee senator had a folksy, down-to-earth approach that contrasted sharply with the cerebral, urbane Stevenson.

Knutson, chafing under pressure from the DFL establishment, claimed that party bosses had threatened to read her out of the party for supporting Kefauver. 

As the nation’s first primary clash between Stevenson and Kefauver drew closer, polls showed the former Illinois governor in the lead in Minnesota, but with his Tennessee rival starting to close the gap. In the closing days of campaign, Kefauver was drawing huge crowds in Northern Minnesota, and the DFL establishment was starting to “run scared,” according the Minneapolis Tribune. On the Sunday before the election, DFL Chair Ray Hemenway was still predicting a 3-to-1 win for Stevenson. Three days later, on March 20, Hemenway was proven wrong, when Kefauver upset Stevenson in the Minnesota primary, winning 48 of the state’s 60 delegates to national convention.

Almost immediately, Stevenson operatives in Chicago claimed that their candidate had lost in Minnesota because Republicans had crossed over to vote in the DFL primary.  Critics of the primary would later maintain that the 1949 law encouraged political mischief-making by allowing supporters of one party to cross over to vote in the other party’s primary. Other critics, claiming that their privacy had been violated, objected to the procedure that required them to publicly request a ballot identified with an individual party when they came to their polling place to vote in the primary.

On a national level, the Stevenson-Kefauver rift was healed at the National Convention in San Francisco later that year, when Stevenson took his primary rival as his vice presidential running mate.

In Minnesota, the wounds caused by the DFL primary battle did not completely heal — at least not right away. In 1958, Coya Knutson was defeated for re-election to her Ninth District congressional seat. Some of her supporters maintained that she had been undermined by DFL leaders who were still smarting over her support for Kefauver in 1956.

A movement for repeal
In 1959, with the 1960 presidential election campaign looming, the nominally non-partisan Minnesota Legislature, with the backing of Gov. Freeman, moved to repeal the 1949 primary law that had caused embarrassment for both parties.  

The mainly Republican conservatives controlled the state Senate, and they moved first to vote repeal with only minimal debate.  But repeal was more controversial in the House, where the liberal caucus, composed of DFLers, was in control. There, a repeal vote was delayed when primary supporters, many of whom had backed Kefauver in 1956, pushed unsuccessful to conduct one more direct primary in 1960 before scuttling the 1949 law entirely. But now DFL leaders were concerned that a 1960 primary, which permitted cross-over voting, could embarrass Hubert Humphrey and his bid for the 1960 presidential nomination. 

On March 3, 1959, the House finally voted to reject the 1960 primary and repeal the 1949 act in its entirety. Nine House liberals, including some prominent Kefauver supporters, bucked the DFL leadership, and voted against repeal.

Minnesota’s primary experiment, in place only during two presidential election cycles, had come to end.