Minnesota presidential candidates always look good on paper.
The North Star State produced Gov. Harold Stassen, who became the “Boy Governor” at 31 but resigned his office to serve as a naval officer in World War II, then came back in 1948 as a strong internationalist GOP presidential contender.
Minnesota (and South Dakota) produced Hubert Humphrey, a broadly experienced and talented former racket-busting Minneapolis mayor and civil rights champion. Humphrey was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948.
In the 1960 Democratic primaries, he fell victim to Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy. He went on to become Vice President under Lyndon Johnson in 1965 and was the Democratic nominee for president in 1968.
In 1975, Sen. Walter Mondale, a respected and talented liberal, decided against a White House run after thinking about it for a year in Holiday Inns. He became Vice President under Jimmy Carter in 1977 and, later, won the 1984 Democratic nomination for president.
In 2011, Republican Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, a two-term moderate and low-key politician, looked like a great bet for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.
These talented Minnesotans – who all looked great on paper – ultimately lost.
This year, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, in the midst of a snowstorm, threw her hat into the ring. Her father was a beloved columnist for The Minneapolis Star. She grew up in Wayzata, a Minneapolis suburb, and then went to Yale and the University of Chicago law school.
Mentored by Mondale, she was elected Hennepin County prosecutor and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006. She’s highly respected in the Senate (where GOP senators actually like her) and was re-elected with 58 percent of the vote in 2018 in a state where Hillary Clinton beat Trump by less than two points.
Ok, so what’s the matter with Minnesota and her all-too-electable candidates?
I worked in Minnesota politics from 1976 to 1978. People are nice, even when you ring their doorbell. The state is a magnificent microcosm of the nation: It has a large, sophisticated urban center surrounded by lush farms and major mining in the north. It’s a port state on Lake Superior.
Minnesota borders the Mississippi River, which flows to the Gulf of Mexico. It rings most every demographic bell – except diversity.
Let’s review why and how Minnesota candidates lost.
Mostly, they were victims of bad timing. In Stassen’s case, he blew a radio debate in the 1948 Oregon primary, giving New York Governor Thomas Dewey the win. Stassen flushed out on a bad night before the microphone.
In 1960, Humphrey – also known as “HHH” – was outshined by young Jack Kennedy in the first modern media campaign with a movie star-like candidate. In 1968, Humphrey’s party had been torn apart by the Vietnam War, and he faced two major challengers, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Sen. Eugene McCarthy, another Minnesota senator who scared President Lyndon Johnson out of the race. A riot at the Democratic Convention in Chicago ruined HHH’s chances.
Humphrey professed the “politics of joy” (imagine that slogan now) and ran into the Richard Nixon juggernaut. Nixon – a Californian – was advised by media guru Roger Ailes, who went on to run Fox News. Trump adviser Roger Stone also worked in Nixon’s campaign.
Mondale? In 1984, he ran against a wildly popular President Ronald Reagan – a Californian – who carried 49 states, but not Minnesota.
Pawlenty? The political ice cracked under his feet as the Republican base rejected middle-of-the-road conservatives for more extreme fare.
All of these Minnesota candidates had great personal stories. Stassen: Young, dynamic veteran. Humphrey: Popular firebrand from a family that owned a small drug store, with a wife who made and sold sandwiches to students to make extra money. Mondale: The son of a rural Lutheran pastor who put himself through school on the GI Bill and was appointed Minnesota Attorney General at 31. Pawlenty: First person in his family to go to college, and his father was a milk truck driver
So, good luck, Sen. Klobuchar of the Great Demographic State of Minnesota. You look good on paper, as does Minnesota. Maybe you’ll break the jinx, also shared by the Minnesota Vikings, who also look good in theory but have never won a Super Bowl.