The incomparable and inescapable (and some would add insufferable) Donald J. Trump appears to be the inevitable Republican presidential nominee this year, whether Minnesota Republicans like it or not. But that doesn’t mean the Minnesotans have to put on a false show of party unity. Or should.
Please join me for a dip into Minnesota history to illustrate the point.
The time: A few weeks before the 1964 Republican National Convention. The scene: The Ambassador Motor Hotel, a then-new venue on the southwest corner of the juncture of Hwy. 12 (now Interstate 394) and Hwy. 100 in St. Louis Park. The cast: Leading progressive GOP activists in Hennepin and Ramsey counties. Among them: Sally Pillsbury, Minneapolis legislators Lyall Schwarzkopf and Wayne Popham, and St. Paulites Harry Strong, Harry Weisbecker, Frank Claiborne, Frank Farrell, and the source of this story, Tom Swain. (Here’s a birthday salute to Swain, who will turn 95 on July 4.)
At issue: How could they spare Minnesota from the election debacle that they were convinced the Barry Goldwater presidential candidacy would inflict on down-ballot Republicans around the country?
They had no illusion that they could help elect Pillsbury’s brother Wheelock Whitney (a noble spirit who died just five weeks ago). Whitney was running a vigorous but long-shot race against a respected DFL incumbent, U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy. But these party insiders hoped to find a way to shield Minnesota’s four GOP members of the U.S. House — Reps. Al Quie in the First District, Ancher Nelsen in the Second, Clark MacGregor in the Third and Odin Langen in the Seventh.
Someone — Swain does not remember who — argued that announcing their opposition to Goldwater was not enough. They needed to do something at the convention that would be noticed by rank-and-file voters back home. They shouldn’t just be against the conservative senator from Arizona. They should be for someone — someone widely known, respected, plausibly presidential and, preferably, a Minnesotan.
“Let’s ask Walter Judd!” someone said. Judd, a high-minded physician and former missionary to China, had been defeated two years earlier by DFLer Don Fraser after representing Minneapolis for 20 years in the U.S. House. In 1964, Judd was retired — but willing and able. The Minnesotan tasked with phoning Judd to seek his permission to be nominated as a favorite son reported to the group: “He said he still has some things he’d like to say to his country.”
Not all 26 members of the Minnesota delegation cottoned to this scheme. A progressive mind-set dominated the GOP in the Twin Cities and Rochester in the 1960s, but conservative thinkers held sway in other parts of the state. When the roll was called at the Cow Palace in San Francisco on July 15, Minnesota’s vote was 18 Judd, 8 Goldwater. That split made news — particularly back home, which was the idea.
The Judd bunch spent a nervous late summer and fall watching a Minnesotan, Hubert Humphrey, land on the Democratic ticket and President Lyndon Johnson maintain a wide lead over Goldwater in the polls. They reminded voters that Minnesota Republicans weren’t great fans of Goldwater’s hawkish stance toward the Soviet Union and resistance to federal action on civil rights, pointing to their Judd votes at the convention to make their point.
It worked. All four of Minnesota’s GOP members of Congress were re-elected in what was otherwise one of the 20th century’s biggest Democratic landslides. In neighboring Iowa, five of six Republican U.S. House members lost their seats.
“Backing Walter Judd turned out to be an excellent exercise,” Swain said last week. “This year’s convention delegation ought to think about doing something similar. We thought Goldwater was extreme, but he wasn’t nearly as unsuitable as Trump.”
My hunch is that there has been a fair amount of such thinking in recent weeks as Trump has dropped in national polls and has raised a shockingly small amount of campaign cash. Minnesota Republicans were never much taken by The Donald. He came in third, behind Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, in the state’s precinct caucus balloting on March 1. It was one of his poorest showings in any state.
But state and national party rules governing convention delegates’ presidential nomination votes have changed since 1964, explained state GOP Chair Keith Downey. This year’s 38-member delegation has little freedom to freelance. Each delegate signed an affidavit pledging to vote for one of the candidates chosen by precinct caucus voters. Since March 1, the Minnesota delegation’s first-ballot vote count has been fixed: 17 Rubio, 13 Cruz, 8 Trump.
What if the names Marco Rubio and/or Ted Cruz are not placed in nomination? Rubio’s announcement last week that he’s running for re-election to his Florida U.S. Senate seat makes that a possibility in his case. It would allow Minnesota’s Rubio 17 to shift to another candidate at will, Downey explained. “That’s a more likely possibility for our delegates” than the alternative that’s being concocted by some #NeverTrumpers in other states — a “conscience exemption” to allow delegates to unhitch themselves to a candidate they can no longer stomach. Downey doubts such an exemption would invalidate the affidavits Minnesota delegates signed.
If they are cut loose, the Rubio 17 could decide to “go along to get along” with the presumptive nominee and go unnoticed at the convention in Cleveland. Or they could decide to make a statement with their votes that would be seen and heard at home. For example: They could rally around a favorite son who exhibits the demeanor and values they would prefer in a presidential candidate. Maybe someone a bit like Walter Judd — a respected retiring congressman with a long record of responsible public service and an internationalist bent.
Calling John Kline: Do you still have some things you’d like to say to your country?
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column marks the start of her annual summer disappearing act. She’ll be back in time for the national conventions.