If former Gov. Jesse Ventura enters the Senate race and wins a place on the November ballot, 2008 will represent the second time in 10 years that he and Norm Coleman have faced off in a statewide election. A recent Rasmussen poll shows that Ventura could draw substantial support away from GOP incumbent Coleman and DFL challenger Al Franken if he decides to make a bid.
On Nov. 3, 1998, Ventura sent shock waves through the state’s political establishment when he was elected governor in a three-way race, elbowing aside Coleman and the DFL’s Hubert Humphrey III.
The Star Tribune reported at the time that Ventura’s unexpected win was a “humiliating blow” to Minnesota’s Republican and DFL parties, both of which had dismissed the former professional wrestler and Brooklyn Park mayor as an amusing novelty. The Coleman and Humphrey campaigns had each expected Ventura to draw more support from the opposing camp, but neither expected that they would both be left behind in Ventura’s political dust.
In a tactic that proved to be his undoing, Humphrey, the state’s attorney general, refused to debate Coleman, then St. Paul’s Republican mayor, unless Ventura appeared on the same platform with them. A series of three-way debates leading up to the the November election gave Ventura an opportunity to promote his folksy, irreverent and engaging image.
No speech-writing committee for him
“He comes across as authentic,” one supporter would later say. “I don’t believe there’s a speech-writing committee behind him. He says some stupid things, but I say some stupid things. He seems more `of the people.’ “
Like their national counterparts during the early months of the 2008 presidential nominating contest, Minnesota’s polling organizations were left behind by fast-moving momentum in 1998.
A Minnesota Poll, conducted the week before the statewide election, showed Humphrey on top with 35 percent support, Coleman, second with 30 percent, and Ventura third with 27 percent. The final St. Paul Pioneer Press/MPR/KARE 11 poll showed Humphrey and Coleman in a dead heat, each with 35 percent, and Ventura trailing at 24 percent; results confirmed by a St. Cloud University poll.
But all three polls stopped talking to likely voters several days before the election and missed a last minute surge toward Ventura. The colorful ex-wrestler had attracted throngs of young and new voters — two groups whose voter preferences had also been notoriously difficult to gauge.
Ventura, himself, continually voiced disdain for political polls.
‘Only one direction to go, and that is up’
“I don’t buy polls because they can be manipulated,” he declared when he won the Reform Party’s gubernatorial endorsement that June. “We have only one direction to go, and that is up. We’re at the lowest point in the polls we’ll ever be right now. And the Democrats and Republicans are at the highest they’ll ever be right now.”
“I’m reeling with confidence,” Ventura told the fledling party’s convention delegates. “We’re gonna lay in the weeds like good Navy SEALS … and when there are two other candidates left standing, we’re gonna swoop in. We can win in Minnesota!”
Ventura’s confidence was vindicated on Nov. 3 when he was elected Minnesota’s 38th governor, ushering in one of the most colorful if not bizarre episodes in the state’s political history. Humphrey’s defeat marked the end of his political career, but Coleman would rebound when he was elected senator in 2002, after Paul Wellstone’s death.