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GOP to Party in Very Blue State

The state of Minnesota is, in some ways, the last place you’d expect to find national Republicans meeting. Sure, it’s competitive politically on the state and local level. And every presidential election year, Republicans talk boldly about winning the state’s 10 electoral votes.

But the simple fact is that a GOP presidential nominee has not carried Minnesota since 1972. 1972!!! If you don’t count the District of Columbia as a state — and that’s a can of worms better left unopened on the eve of the Republican National Convention — Minnesota has gone longer without supporting the GOP presidential candidate than anyplace else.

Neighboring states with comparable political profiles haven’t been so predictable. Wisconsin has only been in the Democratic column since 1988, the past two times by extremely narrow margins. Iowa, after voting for the Republican nominee from 1968 to 1984, voted Democratic from 1988 to 2000, only to swing back, barely, to the GOP in 2004.

So what is it about Minnesota and presidential elections? Let’s call it the “Mondale Effect.” During three straight presidential election years — 1976, 1980 and 1984 — Minnesota homeboy Walter “Fritz” Mondale was on the national ballot, twice as the Democratic vice presidential nominee, once as the nominee for president.

Even in the Republican landslides of ’80 and ’84, Mondale saved his home state for the Democrats. In fact, Minnesota was the only state that voted for Mondale in 1984. That so vexed Ronald Reagan that when he was asked late that year what he wanted for Christmas, he replied, “Well, Minnesota would have been nice.”

Ironically, though, it was Mondale’s ascent from the Senate to the vice presidency that helped contribute to Minnesota’s status as a political battleground after years of Democratic domination. 1978 was a bad year for Democrats everywhere. But in Minnesota, it was exacerbated by the fact that the state’s Democratic governor, Wendell Anderson, essentially appointed himself to fill Mondale’s Senate vacancy.

Actually, Anderson resigned as governor, leaving his former lieutenant governor, Rudy Perpich, to ascend to the No. 1 job in St. Paul. Perpich dutifully appointed Anderson to the Senate — and then they both lost bids for full terms in 1978. That same year, Republican David Durenberger won the state’s other Senate seat, which had been held by another vice president, Hubert Humphrey.

Perpich enjoyed a political comeback four years later. And that helped advance another trend in Minnesota: the colorful character as successful pol.

Perpich was one of a kind, a dentist of Croatian descent who had no close political allies, didn’t mind picking fights, and earned the nickname “Gov. Goofy.”

Perpich tried to sell the governor’s mansion, wanted to dub Minnesota the “Brainpower State,” donated $25,000 of his gubernatorial salary to promote boccie ball, and personally stopped speeders on state highways. He was bounced from office in 1990; his Republican challenger became embroiled in a sex scandal, and just weeks before Election Day, the GOP found a squeaky-clean replacement candidate who was strong enough to win.

That same year, another offbeat character won statewide office, fueled by a series of humorous, unconventional ads: A diminutive, left-wing college professor named Paul Wellstone (D) ousted Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R).

Eight years later, another character was elected governor — Jesse “the Body” Ventura, a former pro wrestler who came from nowhere as an Independent to upset state Attorney General Hubert “Skip” Humphrey III (D) and St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, a Democrat turned Republican. Ventura’s four years in St. Paul were tempestuous, to say the least.

As Ventura’s term was winding down, in 2002, tragedy struck the state: Ten days before Election Day, Wellstone died in a plane crash, along with his wife, daughter and some staffers. Coleman won his seat, besting Mondale, who had been recruited as a last-second replacement.

Now Coleman is up for a second term, and he finds himself in a tough race with another genuine character — comedian Al Franken (D), a Minnesota native who moved back to the state a couple of years ago after earlier stints at Harvard, “Saturday Night Live,” Hollywood, and the best-seller list.

Franken is a lifelong liberal activist who has skillfully put together a strong grass-roots campaign operation. But there is little doubt that his past writings and public statements will come back to bite him in the campaign. And he’s lucky that Ventura opted out of the Senate race — even though the rest of us, from a pure spectator’s point of view, aren’t.

So considering Minnesota’s colorful and unusual political history, give Republicans credit for meeting there and for trying, once again, to win the state at the presidential level. There are 11 states that haven’t voted for the Democratic presidential nominee since 1964, and Democrats — until Sen. Barack Obama’s (Ill.) campaign — haven’t even bothered to try to make them competitive.

Maybe that’s why Republicans have won seven of the past 10 presidential elections — and why they have some reason to worry this time around.

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