Remember when this state had a primary?

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 4, 2012 - 4:53 PM

My sources do, and this is the tale they tell about the campaigns of 1952 and '56.

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Harold Stassen, left, with Dwight Eisenhower, July 1952.

Last week they finally came -- Rick Santorum to Luverne, Mitt Romney to Eagan, and Ron Paul to Rochester, Chanhassen and Arden Hills. Anybody sighted a Newt?

The Republican presidential nomination parade isn't bypassing Minnesota completely. Precinct caucuses -- Republican, DFL and maybe a smattering of the Independence Party, too -- will convene at 7 p.m. Tuesday at a church basement, school classroom or civic hall near you.

But Minnesota has drifted far into the national political backwater since 1956, when Walter Cronkite interviewed Democratic primary voters on the streets of Waseca, and 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower's second-place Minnesota primary showing was considered key to his eventual win.

That's right -- primary showing. Minnesota once had a presidential primary.

The fact that it no longer does is a testament to the ability of party insiders to have their way with election laws, with the aim of having their way with elections.

And 50-plus years of precinct caucus history attest that, like the rest of us, party insiders should be careful what they wish for.

Some of my favorite circa 1950s activists -- Republicans Tom Swain and Sally Pillsbury, DFLers Jack Puterbaugh, Jane Freeman and George Farr -- helped me piece together a recap of how Minnesota lost its presidential primary:

Minnesota was a primary state for presidential purposes from 1913 to 1917, and again from 1949 to 1957.

My sources have great memories, but they don't reach back to 1917. Today's tale is about the primaries of 1952 and 1956.

Favorite son and former Gov. Harold Stassen was a shoo-in to win Minnesota's second-in-the-nation GOP primary in 1952. But old-guard conservative Republicans weren't enamored of the internationalist, progressive Boy Governor. They favored Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, and expected him to give Stassen serious competition in the primary.

Instead, a write-in campaign was mounted for the hero of D-Day, Dwight Eisenhower. He was serving as NATO supreme commander in Europe, and was unable to come home to file for office, much less campaign. Nevertheless, Minnesotans liked Ike. He came in a close second to Stassen, which qualified as both an upset and crucial evidence that the general had heartland appeal.

Eisenhower went on to the presidency. Minnesota GOP conservatives went home mad.

Fast-forward four years, and it was the DFL palace guard's turn for a letdown.

The DFL State Central Committee endorsed former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson for a second try for the presidency on Oct. 30, 1955, and expected party officials to fall into line. U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey, Gov. Orville Freeman and U.S. Rep. Eugene McCarthy took turns squiring Stevenson and the national press corps around the state when he came to campaign. (That's how Cronkite got to Waseca, David Brinkley to Moorhead and John Chancellor to Fergus Falls, Puterbaugh recalls.)

But spunky U.S. Rep. Coya Knutson from the Red River Valley and a few Twin Cities DFL contrarians -- businessman Robert Short, legislators Donald Wozniak and Peter Popovich -- preferred Tennessee populist Sen. Estes Kefauver over cool, professorial Stevenson. They put on a vigorous campaign that included a statewide TV buy the night before the primary.

Kefauver carried all but the Fifth Congressional District. (Tom Swain confessed that he participated in organizing GOP voters to cross over and vote for Kefauver, whom they considered easier for Eisenhower to defeat in November.) DFL regulars who had set their sights on going to the national convention in Chicago moped at home instead, watching as the Minnesota delegation cast most of its votes for Kefauver and helped put the Tennessean on the ticket as Stevenson's running mate.

By the time the 1957 Legislature convened, it was easy to round up a bipartisan majority to get rid of the presidential primary, remembers then-First Lady Jane Freeman. "It wasn't a close vote."

The insiders were convinced that they could control precinct caucuses. But it turned out that in a lot of years, any small, well-organized, impassioned group could control the caucuses -- even if that group was anathema to the party elite. Low caucus turnouts made that possible.

Or not. In 2008, high turnout at the DFL caucuses made Barack Obama the winner over the insiders' choice, Hillary Clinton.

That same year, the state's top two GOP insiders, U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, stumped the state for John McCain. Unimpressed caucusgoers went overwhelmingly for Mitt Romney in that year's nonbinding straw poll.

Last time's insurgent is this year's insider favorite. Maybe that combination assures Romney a repeat win in Minnesota on Tuesday.

But I perked up last week when Ron Paul remarked in his post-Florida primary speech, "If you have an irate, tireless minority, you do very well in the caucus states. ... If you have an energized group of people working in a campaign and actually believe in something, it's better to work in the caucus states."

Paul evidently knows precinct caucuses well. He may understand them better than did the party insiders who foisted this less-than-democratic system onto Minnesota in 1957.

And if Paul does well on Tuesday, maybe Minnesota's insiders will again be ready for a change.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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