The 1973 Time magazine cover that revealed “The Good Life in Minnesota” and “A State That Works” to the rest of the nation gave plenty of credit to moderate and liberal Republicans for helping nurture a prosperous and progressive state.
Most of the focus, however, was on a generation of young Democratic-Farmer-Laborites who championed social justice, more equitable business growth, a cleaner environment and modernizing and expanding the public sector to realize those ideals.
Cover boy Gov. Wendell Anderson epitomized this zeitgeist in the state’s body politic. Gushing over his “frank blue eyes, framed by a rugged, rectangular face” and his gosh-darn wholesomeness, Time attributed his “anti-elitist and egalitarian” philosophy to his humble roots as son of a Swedish-American meatpacker from St. Paul’s East Side. The article also speculated that if Anderson won re-election, he might be a prospect for vice-president alongside Ted Kennedy in 1976, or even for president himself.
Anderson did win by a landslide in 1974. And with party designation on the ballot for legislative candidates for the first time that year, voters awarded lopsided new majorities to DFLers in both chambers. Under the adroit and inspired leadership of Senate Majority Leader Nick Coleman and House Speaker Martin Olav Sabo, the next four years were the most productive for enactment of progressive policies and public improvements until the 2023 legislative session.
Minnesotans at the time also wielded power in Washington, D.C., disproportionate to their state’s population: Walter Mondale was creating a new model of vice-presidential effectiveness under Jimmy Carter. An ailing Hubert Humphrey still carried clout in the Senate. Robert Bergland served as Agriculture secretary. Senior Democratic U.S. House members were calling the shots on international human rights (Don Fraser), transportation and public works investment (John Blatnik) and preservation of wilderness and scenic rivers (Joe Karth). Moderate U.S. House Republicans were leaders in federal education policy (Rep. and Gov. Al Quie) and international trade (Rep. Bill Frenzel).
But in 1978, nearly all the big wheels on the DFL bandwagon came off at once and the cover boy’s career was over. National economic woes under President Jimmy Carter factored hugely: skyrocketing gasoline prices and a “misery index” marked by both rising unemployment and inflation, along with a humiliating hostage crisis in Iran. Minnesotans especially were upset about losing purchasing power as inflation pushed them into higher brackets on a state income tax that was one of the nation’s most steeply progressive. Anderson couldn’t shake the pejorative nickname, “Spendy Wendy.”
Perhaps the most important factor was perceived arrogance in the ruling party. Anderson saw the U.S. Senate as his route to the White House and finagled his way in early by resigning and having his lieutenant governor, Rudy Perpich, succeed him and appoint him to the seat Mondale vacated on becoming VP. Both Anderson and Perpich lost by large margins. Humphrey’s death in January of 1978 also was a harbinger, signaling the end of an era for Minnesota’s dominant New Deal liberalism under one of the most effective and courageous civil rights leaders in U.S. history. Competition among DFLers for his open seat laid bare internecine conflicts on wilderness protections, gun control and other issues that tended to pit urban liberals against more moderate rural DFLers. After the votes were counted, DFLers had lost all three of the top offices and were tied in the state House, the biggest rout and net loss of power in their history.
Republicans, especially those of the moderate variety (from 1975 through 1995 the official party label on the ballot was “Independent-Republican”) would be competitive for the next 30 years, until 2010. They were never in total control of the Legislature and governor’s office and both U.S. Senate seats but came close several times. DFLers held that total control for 10 years out of the 50, including now. Over the half-century from 1973 through 2023, DFLers would hold the top three statewide offices (governor and two U.S. Senate seats) 57% of the time (86 out of 150 years), not exactly a picture of one-party rule.
Measuring on a left-center-right continuum, however, reveals a larger truth about the state’s political essence. Most of those non-DFL office-holders – GOP Govs. Quie and Arne Carlson, Sens. Dave Durenberger and Norm Coleman, and Gov. Jesse Ventura of the Independence Party – cast themselves as practical, problem-solving moderates, and together they served for a combined 40 years.
Thus, elected officials guided by a center-left philosophy controlled the top offices 84% of the time, or 126 years out of 150. Republicans and conservatives were able, in part because of the natural disadvantage Democrats suffer from their urban concentration, to remain far more competitive in geographic district representation, for U.S. House races and in the Legislature. And in recent years they’ve been able to elect some hard-right zealots to Congress, including Reps. Michelle Bachman and Jason Lewis, for brief periods at least.
The most important reality now is that an increasingly conservative GOP brand, and lately an angrier, irrational and more extreme “Trumpublican” variety, has failed to win a statewide election to any office in Minnesota since 2006. Going back further, Republicans have failed to win more than 50% of the vote in any statewide election since moderate Carlson’s landslide re-election in 1994. Republicans have eked out a few statewide elections with a plurality of the vote since then, but largely because of relatively strong third-party vote totals in the center (Independence Party) and on the left (Green, varieties of socialists and marijuana legalization parties). These parties have tended to take votes away from DFLers. And there is no significant extremist conservative third party in Minnesota to the right of today’s Republican Party.
In presidential elections over that period, when higher turnout gives us a more complete measure of philosophical orientation, Minnesota is reliably but not overwhelmingly Democratic. It is the only state in the union to never cast its electoral votes for a Republican over that period. But in other races for Congress, for statewide constitutional offices and the Legislature, the GOP won enough, or came close enough, for Minnesota to be considered a competitive, or in the color-coded terminology that has taken hold since 2000, a purple state.
Debate continues over exactly what shade of blue or bluish-purple we are, have been, or will be. Conservatives insist that Minnesota is a swing state in transition to red, like others in the Midwest, such as Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio. Although Minnesota has been the nation’s most reliably blue state in presidential elections since 1932, the margin of victory has been narrower in recent decades than in many other states and fell to 1.5 percentage points for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016. Only in New Hampshire was Clinton’s margin narrower. That gap returned to a more typical 7 percentage points for Joe Biden over Trump in 2020, but still only the 19th largest margin among the 25 states that voted for Biden.
On all the various rankings of states for percentage who self-identify as conservatives and in margins of victory for Democrats, Minnesota is not nearly the bluest or least conservative state, usually ranking around 15th to 20th most blue or center left.
Endlessly frustrating for Republicans since 2006 is that the prize seems so close – always just out of reach. Like Lucy inviting Charlie Brown to place-kick a football, Minnesota beckons winnable every election cycle, only to pull the ball away and leave the GOP flat on its back, two to 10 percentage points behind.
The upside for DFLers is that a “Trumpier” Minnesota GOP appears less able than ever to appeal to the center and to win statewide elections. The downside for the general population is that it no longer has an acceptable and occasionally cooperative and loyal opposition to check majority power. A much larger percentage of Minnesotans than in 1973 has fallen prey to various forms of extremist dogma: anti-science denial of climate change and rejection of public health measures; hostility toward racial equity, reparations, women’s reproductive rights, immigrants and Islamic people and various forms of homophobia or transphobia.
Perhaps most worrisome, the anti-government and anti-tax animus that was always there has morphed into hostility toward democracy itself. A large faction of the Republican base increasingly denies the validity of elections and seeks to make it harder for people to vote, especially for those with lower incomes and younger citizens. These beliefs run contrary to the spirit and the letter of the state’s Republican legacy, and against a distinctively egalitarian social contract and culture. Trumpism may not be winning now, but as the dominant faction in the “out” party, it could sweep to power in the event of an economic shock or other major disruption. And the potential for a total breakdown and civil strife of the January 6 variety is clear and present.
The second half of “More than 50 years of pendulum swings” focused on swings by the decades runs tomorrow, Sept. 20.