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The battle for the Republican presidential nomination — 100 years ago

In 1912, Minnesota’s Republicans were caught up in a fight between Theodore Roosevelt and the incumbent president, William Howard Taft.

Minnesota’s Republican activists will gather at their precinct caucuses tonight at a time when their party is embroiled in a fierce presidential nomination battle. This year, that battle pits a self-styled insurgent, Newt Gingrich, plus Rick Santorum and Ron Paul against the candidate favored by the party’s establishment, Mitt Romney.

One hundred years ago, the state’s Republicans were caught up in another nomination fight between party regulars and insurgents. Then, as now, the insurgents’ candidate was actually a high-powered Washington insider. In fact, he had previously served as president of the United States. He was Theodore Roosevelt, and his target was his former political ally, the incumbent Republican president, William Howard Taft.

Taft had been Roosevelt’s vice president, but the two men had fallen out as their ideologies diverged and their earlier friendship dissolved into personal enmity. The flamboyant and charismatic Roosevelt, then known as the Colonel, provided a sharp contrast to the portly Taft, who was considered colorless, ineffective and unelectable by the party’s progressive wing. Even though Taft had extended Roosevelt’s trust-busting initiatives, the Colonel believed that his presidential successor had failed to adhere to the progressive principles that defined the Roosevelt brand of Republicanism.

During the early days of 1912, Roosevelt initially hesitated when a group of progressive Republican governors urged him to challenge Taft for the party’s presidential nomination. But then, as the pressure on him continued to mount, the former president finally acquiesced, declaring at the end of February that “my hat is in the ring.” The nomination battle was joined and a new phrase had taken its place in the American political lexicon.

Promoted early in Minnesota

In Minnesota, the Colonel’s boosters had started promoting his candidacy even before Roosevelt’s public announcement. On Feb. 16, a St. Paul political activist, Hugh T. Holbert, declared that he was launching a state campaign to dump Taft and win the nomination for Roosevelt. Holbert reported that he had received encouragement from a former chairman of the Republican State Central Committee and a former speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives.

After initially resisting entreaties by his supporters to challenge Taft for the 1912 presidential nomination, Roosevelt finally declared that “my hat is in the ring."Hennepin County Library
After initially resisting entreaties by his supporters to challenge Taft for the 1912 presidential nomination, Roosevelt finally declared that “my hat is in the ring.”

Once the “hat was in the ring,” a Roosevelt boom continued to gain momentum all across Minnesota. Soon it was clear that the Colonel had surged ahead of his rival, Taft, in terms of support from party activists. On May 10, those activists met at their precinct caucuses to begin the delegate selection process.

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“Theodore Roosevelt swept Hennepin County last night,” the Tribune reported the next day. “It was a complete route for the Taft forces although they piled up a popular vote for their candidate that would have won hands down in any ordinary delegate caucus. Nothing like the vote cast by Minnesota Republicans was ever seen in delegate primaries. The independent voters, who ordinarily pay no attention to such events, seemed to turn out en masse.”

The Roosevelt surge continued when the state’s Republicans convened their district meetings to select delegates to the national convention in Chicago. “If any doubt existed as to Minnesota’s place in the delegate count … it was removed yesterday by the conventions held through[out the] state. They were undeniably for Roosevelt,” the Minneapolis Tribune noted on May 16.

Wisconsin Sen. Robert La Follette, a presidential aspirant and a national leader of the party’s progressive wing, had the support of some delegates, but they were unable to overcome the Colonel’s substantial delegate count in Minnesota. In the past, the two men had been allies. But, by the time the National Convention convened on June 18, La Follette had become increasingly resentful of Roosevelt, who had stolen the political limelight from him.

Taft operatives controlled convention machinery

Roosevelt supporters, including those from Minnesota, arrived in Chicago to discover that the rules had been stacked against them by Taft operatives, who controlled the convention machinery. Roosevelt had won 9 out of the 12 states that held direct presidential primary elections. But the remaining 36 states used party conventions that were subject to manipulation by the old-line party bosses.

Here the GOP elephant is offering the Republican voter a choice between former President Theodore Roosevelt, Wisconsin Sen. Robert La Follette and the incumbent, President William Howard Taft.Hennepin County Library
Here the GOP elephant is offering the Republican voter a choice between former President Theodore Roosevelt, Wisconsin Sen. Robert La Follette and the incumbent, President William Howard Taft.

When the Taft-controlled Rules Committee declined to seat many Roosevelt delegates who were embroiled in credential disputes, the Colonel’s supporters walked out of the convention, causing a huge schism in the Republican Party.

Many of the bolters, as they were called, would reconvene that summer in Chicago to create a new political organization, the Progressive Party, with Roosevelt as its head. Later, the Progressives would take as their symbol the Bull Moose, to symbolize the resolve of their leader who had declared that he was “as fit as Bull Moose” after surviving an assassination attempt while campaigning in Wisconsin. You can watch a Roosevelt “Bull Moose” speech here.

‘A peculiar position’

Back in Minnesota, Republican leaders were in a high state of anxiety about their party’s future now that Roosevelt and his supporters had bolted. “Never in the history of the Republican Party in Minnesota have the affairs of the party been in such a peculiar position,” the Minneapolis Tribune noted. “No Republican can be found who knows the exact status of the party and no state official could say what action was necessary regarding the preparation of ballots for the general election in November.”

Republican Party leaders may have viewed Roosevelt’s defection with great apprehension, but rank-and-file Minnesotans flocked to his Progressive banner. On Election Day, Nov. 4, Minnesota was one of six states that gave the Colonel a plurality of its popular votes. In a four-way race, Roosevelt’s 38 percent plurality meant that he gained all 12 of Minnesota’s electoral votes. The Democrats’ Woodrow Wilson ran second here with 32 percent of the vote. The incumbent president, Taft, placed a distant third at 18 percent, with the Socialists’ Eugene Debs coming in fourth at 8 percent.

At the national level, Wilson gained a plurality with 42 percent of the popular vote, but swept the Electoral College, winning 40 of the 48 states. On March 13, 1913, the former governor and college president would take office as this country’s 28th president, ending the Republicans’ 16-year hold on the White House.