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Franken Makes Democrats Remember ‘Minnesota Massacre’

Botched 1976 Senate pick led to Democratic-Farmer-Labor party being swept from top offices two years later

Embattled Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., is expected to make an announcement about his future on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Embattled Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., is expected to make an announcement about his future on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton will reportedly appoint Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to replace Sen. Al Franken, who is expected to announce his resignation today.

Sources told the Minnesota Star-Tribune that Smith is the likely choice to fill Franken’s seat before a special election in 2018.

Smith served as Dayton’s chief of staff during his first term and became lieutenant governor.

But there is also a significant drawback to appointing Smith to the seat:  Minnesota’s legislature is controlled by Republicans, and GOP state Sen. Michelle Fischbach would take Smith’s place as lieutenant governor if Smith leaves.

The last time something similar happened it led to Minnesota’s Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party taking a massive hit known as the “Minnesota Massacre,” when it lost both U.S. Senate seats, the governor’s office and dozens of seats in the Legislature, the Star-Tribune reported.

“It was probably the worst defeat the DFL ever suffered, certainly in modern political times, in Minnesota,” Roger Moe, who was a DFL state senator at the time, told the newspaper.

In 1976, Sen. Walter Mondale was elected Vice President on Jimmy Carter’s ticket. Then-Gov. Wendell Anderson basically appointed himself to the Senate seat, resigning so his Lt. Gov. Rudy Perpich could appoint him to Mondale’s seat.

The move angered voters and they punished him and the party in the 1978 elections.

Anderson, who had won re-election to the governorship in 1974 with 78 percent of the vote, lost badly to Republican Rudy Boschwitz. Republican David Durenberger won the other Senate seat, which was open after the death of Sen. Hubert Humphrey.

And Perpich, Anderson’s successor, lost the governor’s race to Republican Al Quie.

“I think [Anderson] saw his avenue to follow in the footsteps of Humphrey and Mondale, and maybe bigger things,” Moe told the newspaper.

There were other dynamics at play, Moe said, pointing to it being the elections with an unpopular Carter in the White House and double-digit interest rates.

It took years for DFLers to recover. Perpich won back the governor’s office in 1982, but they didn’t regain a Senate seat until Paul Wellstone upset Boschwitz in 1990. Dayton, who would now pick Franken’s successor, won back the other Senate seat in 2000.

Correction 11:32 a.m. | Tina Smith is not the first woman lieutenant governor in Minnesota’s history. The last six people to serve in that role have been women.

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