Donald Trump has shocked many Americans this election cycle with his unorthodox campaign style and penchant for controversial rhetoric and impossibly tough talk.
To some Minnesotans, however, the Trump phenomenon looks all too familiar. It looks a lot, in fact, like Jesse “the Body” Ventura.
As the reality of nominating Donald Trump as the official GOP candidate for president began to sink in for Minnesota delegates to the Republican National Convention, it prompted talk of Ventura, the pro wrestler and actor who pulled off one of the most stunning victories in Minnesota political history when he won the governor’s seat in 1998 over two brand names in state politics.
Trump and Ventura share a good deal: a zeal for the spotlight, a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with the press, a gift for stirring up controversy, and a skill at capitalizing on populist politics.
At the RNC, a few Minnesota delegates brought up the similarities between the two men.
The problem with — and appeal of — outsiders
Two themes were prominent in the Ventura talk. To some, Ventura’s tenure as governor proves that blustery outsiders who promise to shake up the status quo can’t be trusted to make good on their lofty promises. Ventura came in pledging to change business as usual, and had big ideas like instituting a unicameral legislature. But he suffered low approval ratings near the end of his first term, and decided not to seek a second one.
Andy Aplikowski, a delegate for Sen. Ted Cruz and a critic of Trump, told MinnPost on Monday that Trump brought back bad memories of Ventura, calling the governor “a guy who said a lot of things that people like to hear, and did none of them.”
The other idea that Minnesotans considered is the power and appeal of unconventional populists like Ventura and Trump — and that Trump’s opponents underestimate him at their peril.
When asked if he believed Trump could win Minnesota, Steve Wenzel, a GOP delegate who served for 29 years in the Minnesota Legislature as a DFLer, immediately invoked Ventura.
“I was the last one in Minnesota to have seen Jesse Ventura coming,” he said. “Somehow, I couldn’t believe when it happened, and I didn’t see it coming at all. I mean, I was totally blind-sighted with what was happening.”
“Minnesotans have a history — there’s a streak of independence in Minnesota, going back 100 years,” Wenzel said, citing the election of Republican-turned-Democrat governor John Lind in 1898 and the success of Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party in Minnesota in 1912.
Rep. Tom Emmer explained that Ventura was a “phenomenon.”
“We had three people running for governor several years ago, a well-known Republican, a well-known Democrat, and an independent. The independent wasn’t even polling at 20 percent before the election in November, yet the independent wins,” he said.
“And we find out, all these people who said they weren’t going to vote for that guy because he’s undisciplined, there’s going to be problems with the campaign, he can’t win — these same people didn’t admit to voting for him after, yet he got elected.”
To Emmer, the parallel to Trump is clear: polling, media coverage — all the traditional ways to measure a candidate’s success — cannot truly account for the popularity of a controversial, unorthodox candidate, who may be scrutinized and ridiculed in public but admired privately.
“It’s the beauty of the secret ballot,” Emmer said.