Minnesota Caucuses: Land of 10,000 Cranks

Public Policy Polling has Rick Santorum leading in the run-up to tonight’s Minnesota caucuses, and Mitt Romney camp is already spinning away their expected loss. After appearing dead, Santorum now appears poised to win some more states. I think this says more about Romney than Santorum; despite a gigantic financial advantage and the help of many Republican party potentates (such as former Minnesota governor and one-time presidential dreamer Tim Pawlenty), Romney can’t put the nomination away against nominal opposition. But Romney losing Minnesota would be an unsurprising result for a state party and process that repeatedly put forward extremist candidates who have little appeal in a general election, and who are often more than a little bit nutty.

Minnesota is one a just a few states have a significant caucus or party convention process for any office other than president. In the other states the party endorsement usually has some legal purpose. In Connecticut, the party convention can nominate a candidate for the general election. But a candidate not endorsed by the party can trigger a primary by collecting a fairly small number of signatures. In Utah, candidates that get a supermajority of the delegate vote at the convention are automatically the nominee, and state law provides no option for a primary.

In Minnesota, the party endorsement has almost no connection to the state-sanctioned process of determining a party’s nominees for the general election. The parties—in Minnesota the Democratic party is known as the Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL)—begin the process in early February with a straw poll that’s not binding and the selection of delegates for the next round in the process; that’s what’s happening for president tonight. One can finish first in the straw poll and not come close to getting the endorsement; in 2010 Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak won the straw poll for governor with about 30%. But after the straw poll are two more steps before the party endorses for Congressional or statewide office; at the state party convention, Rybak never grew his 30%, even as other candidates dropped out, and the endorsement went to state representative Margaret Anderson Kelleher.

Since the process requires several long caucuses over a three or four month period, the people who participate in the caucuses are the hard-core party activists. As is usually the case, the party activists are further to the ideological extremes than are the overall party voting base, and much further from the center than the November electorate. While Minnesotans pride themselves on weighing electability in the caucuses, in reality they tend to just pick people who they believe share their political and policy positions and who they like. And even then, it can get a little funky; in 2008 a bloc of about 30% of the DFL delegates, most of whom believed Al Franken was insufficiently liberal, supported the candidate who ran against Franken from the left.

Once the parties endorse, the next step is waiting to see if the losing candidates—or candidates who didn’t bother seeking the endorsement—will honor the endorsement and not file for the primary. That’s what’s kind of crazy about Minnesota’s process—in the end, it’s a byzantine process that leads to a beauty pageant winner, and the hope that everyone else will operate on an honor system and not challenge the endorsed candidate.

For Congressional races, it’s exceedingly rare for anyone to challenge the party’s endorsed candidate. Probably 15-20% of a primary electorate will only vote for the endorsed candidate. But since endorsed candidates are often weak election candidates, it’s not uncommon, despite that automatic share of the vote, for endorsed candidates to be challenged (and lose) in primaries down-ballot or for statewide office.

Current DFL governor Mark Dayton has long eschewed the party endorsement process. He didn’t seek it in 2010, instead waiting to contest the primary with a self-funded campaign against the DFL endorsed candidate an another self-funder.* In fact, the defeat of the DFL candidate in 2010 continued a streak that goes back to 1970: since then, no non-incumbent endorsed by the DFL has been elected governor, and several of those nominees haven’t survived the primary.

Republicans have more successfully controlled their endorsements. Former Democratic mayor of St Paul Norm Coleman, one of Minnesota’s more electable Republicans, was twice nominated for statewide office (the first time losing the governor’s race to Jesse Ventura, then winning his Senate race in the wake of Paul Wellstone’s death). Tim Pawlenty was endorsed for governor in 2002.

But the Republican caucuses have produced some horrible endorsements. In 2010, the Republicans nominated far-right conservative Tom Emmer, who in a landslide year lost to Dayton, who’s been a good governor but as a candidate had major flaws. But the best explanation for why it wouldn’t be a surprise for Santorum to win the Minnesota caucuses is what happened in 1990 and 1994.

Today, most political junkies outside Minnesota think of 1990 as the year that Paul Wellstone shocked Rudy Boschwitz and was elected to the Senate. But the craziest story of that year was Minnesota’s race for governor.

The incumbent was DFLer Rudy Perpich. Perpich got the DFL endorsement that year, but he was challenged in the primary by his one-time protégé, AG Mike Hatch. Perpich’s focus was on economics and development, but though he seldom discussed it he was not pro-choice. Hatch wanted to be governor, and he was prepared to destroy Perpich if necessary. In the primary, he attacked Perpich on choice. Perpich won, but entered the general election weakened.

The good news at that time for Perpich was the Republicans had endorsed a hard-right social conservative named Jon Grunseth, who survived a primary challenge from a moderate, pro-choice Republican. But in mid-October, it came out that several years earlier Grunseth had gone skinny dipping in his pool with four teenaged girls, only three of whom weren’t his daughter. He soon dropped out.

The Republicans quickly huddled and put forth their replacement nominee. But because the endorsement has no official status in state election law, it was determined that the second-place finisher, Arne Carlson, would be the Republican’s nominee. With a big boost from moderate, pro-choice women softened up by Hatch’s primary attacks on Perpich, Carlson won.

But the craziness didn’t end there. After a well-regarded first term, Carlson was forced to deal with the Republican party. The didn’t deal with him gently. Rather than endorse their sitting governor, the caucus-goers ended up endorsing another hard-right conservative, a proto-Michele Bachmann named Allen Quist. [Carlson stomped Quist in the primary by a two-to-one margin.]

So, tonight, if Rick Santorum wins, remember that it may not signal a resurgence for Santorum. Instead, it’s an indication of Mitt Romney’s weakness, but it would also be an unsurprising result of a crazy process and a cadre of Republicans that are further to the right than even the tea-party addled electorates of Republican primaries.

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