By 2020, Minnesota could have its presidential primary back — again. If it does, it will be fresh confirmation that Minnesota political history is more akin to a continuously running movie than a parade. Watch long enough, and you’ll see plots recur.
While crowds, confusion and scraps-of-paper balloting at the March 1 precinct caucuses remain fresh in mind, legislators are at work to get Minnesota back into the presidential primary game. Bills to do as much advanced in both the House and Senate last week.
Minnesota has been a primary state before — three times: 1916; 1952-56; and 1992. There’s a solid case for going there again. But before lawmakers do, they might want to know why previous primary forays faltered. Robbie LaFleur of the Legislative Reference Library helped me rewind Minnesota’s presidential primary history:
• 1916: Power to the people was in vogue in 1913, soon after a U.S. constitutional change allowing voters to directly elect U.S. senators. Asked Gov. Adolph Eberhart: Why not presidential candidates, too? “The people are competent to elect their officials and it follows that they are also equally competent to nominate,” he argued in his official message to the 1913 Legislature. It concurred, unanimously.
That enthusiasm dissipated after just one cycle because of something Americans might witness this year: a brokered Republican convention. Delegates drafted Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who had not been on the ballot in Minnesota or anywhere else, to run against Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. Minnesotans concluded that their primary had been a wasted effort. The 1917 Legislature buried it for the next 32 years.
• 1952-56: The primary returned in the Conservative-controlled 1949 Legislature, perhaps amid hopes of giving former Gov. Harold Stassen a stronger home-state springboard for a 1952 presidential bid than he’d enjoyed in 1948, when he finished third for the GOP nomination.
If that was the thinking, it backfired. In 1952, Stassen eked out a Minnesota primary victory by a scant 20,000 votes over a write-in candidacy that had been launched only days before the election. The write-in effort’s good showing — remarkable in part because it required voters to spell “Dwight Eisenhower” — was the primary election headline from Minnesota that year.
It was the DFL establishment’s turn to rue the primary in 1956. DFL insiders twisted Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson’s arm to convince him to enter the Minnesota primary, promising him a sure win. In return, U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey believed he would be tapped as Stevenson’s running mate.
That plan fell apart. By a strong 60,000 votes, voters rejected Stevenson in favor of Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver. The Tennessean had stumped the state wearing a coonskin cap and appearing at rallies featuring U.S. Rep. Coya Knutson singing the theme song from the “Davy Crockett” TV show, using Kefauver’s name rather than Crockett’s.
(Knutson was sealing her fate with her party’s establishment. Two years later, her northwestern Minnesota district’s male DFL leaders engineered the infamous-but-effective “Coya, come home” appeal by her estranged husband.)
Kefauver’s victory was also aided by Republican crossover voters, who were unimpeded by Minnesota law from voting in the Democratic primary.
“Eisenhower had no opposition in our primary,” remembers Tom Swain, the former mayor of Lilydale and a St. Paul GOP activist in those years. “Word went out, ‘Here’s our chance to embarrass the DFL kingpins. Let’s do it.’ ” Observers were astounded at high turnout for Kefauver in the Republican-dominated Third Congressional District. Without party registration, Swain advised, “there’s quite an opportunity to putz around in a primary.”
The two parties had had enough. They cooperated to convince the 1959 Legislature to bury the primary again — showing that there’s only so much democracy that political parties can stand.
• 1992: An innocuous elections bill unexpectedly became a presidential primary bill in the 1989 Legislature’s final days and won DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich’s signature. But the two parties were nonplused. The 1992 presidential primary proceeded only by the grace of GOP Gov. Arne Carlson’s veto of a bill repealing it.
Minnesotans’ underwhelming turnout that April 7 (too late, critics said) suggested that the two governors’ support for a primary was not widely shared. Only 10 percent of voters cast ballots, and the national media ignored the results. (It was Bill Clinton by a nose over Jerry Brown for the Dems, and President George H.W. Bush whupping Pat Buchanan in the GOP.) State budget mavens complained that administering the primary cost taxpayers $10 per vote. The primary was “suspended” in 1996. It was off the statute books by 2000, replaced by the now-familiar party-administered straw balloting at caucuses.
Turnout is again propelling change. More than 321,000 Minnesotans swamped the neighborhood meetings on March 1, creating scenes nothing like the orderly elections of which Minnesotans boast. This newspaper joined a chorus in the ensuing days calling for a presidential preference primary in 2020.
I’m with ’em, provided they don’t oversell this thing. As Minnesotans have seen and seen again, a presidential primary offers participants an easier and surer vote but no guarantee of influence. The winner can drop out of the running two weeks later. (Bye, Marco.) A late candidacy or brokered convention can come along and make Minnesota’s primary a $6 million irrelevance.
As the 2016 Legislature’s presidential primary bills are written now, they include a feature that will discomfit some Minnesota voters. Primary participants will be required to take either a Democratic or a Republican ballot, not both; the one they choose will be a matter of public record. It’s not party registration, but it’s close.
That feature of the primary bills is intended to deter the kind of mischief my friend Swain helped perpetrate in 1956. It’s also likely to deter some Minnesotans from taking a ballot at all — just as some have been loath these many years to be seen attending a partisan caucus. For those who value political privacy, a presidential primary is no better than a caucus.
But at a primary, one should never have to cast a vote on a Post-it note.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at email@example.com.