Listen and subscribe to our podcast: Via Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher

Minnesota Republicans had a decent 2020 election. They captured a U.S. House seat from Democrats, held their state Senate majority and grew their state House numbers.

But their U.S. Senate candidate, Jason Lewis, won only 43.5% of the vote statewide — the latest in an increasingly long list of Republican candidates who have fallen well short of a majority of Minnesota.

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty was the last Minnesota Republican to win statewide, in 2006. But he got there with 46.7% of the vote in a three-way race.

Star Tribune reader Ron Kroll asked Curious Minnesota, our community reporting project: When was the last time a Republican candidate garnered at least 50% of the vote in an election for statewide office in Minnesota?

You have to go back a full quarter century for the answer. In 1994, former Gov. Arne Carlson coasted to re-election with 63.3% of the vote over liberal state Sen. John Marty.

Carlson's path that year illustrates the challenge for Minnesota Republicans more interested in winning elections than purity tests. Even though he was the sitting governor, Carlson — a moderate who supported legal abortion and gay rights — lost the GOP endorsement that year to Allen Quist, a state senator with unabashedly right-wing views.

Carlson easily beat Quist in the GOP primary that year before thumping Marty in the general. But that year's turn of events has resonated in Minnesota Republican politics ever since, with potential GOP contenders forced to adhere to policy platforms that pass muster with religious conservatives but are out of step with a majority of Minnesotans.

"I don't think someone with Arne's views could even win a Republican primary today," said Tom Horner, a longtime Twin Cities public relations executive and former Republican. "The entire Republican base has shifted so far right."

Pawlenty, former Sen. Norm Coleman and a handful of other Republicans benefited in the early 2000s from a healthy third-party movement that rose in the wake of former Gov. Jesse Ventura. But Ventura's Independence Party has since dimmed as a force in statewide races.

Horner noted Republicans recently have looked almost exclusively to rural Minnesota for gains in U.S. House and state legislative races. But their best margins are in areas that are losing population at the fastest rate.

Horner was an Independence Party candidate for governor in 2010, when Democrat Mark Dayton edged Republican Tom Emmer in an otherwise great year for the GOP nationally.

Horner was also an aide to former Republican Sen. Dave Durenberger, who surpassed 50% in three statewide races with progressive views on certain issues.

In terms of raw vote totals, Durenberger and Carlson are likely the two most successful Minnesota Republicans of the last half-century. But they've both left the party behind: In recent presidential cycles, the two men, both 86, endorsed Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

If you'd like to submit a Curious Minnesota question, fill out the form below:

This form requires JavaScript to complete.

Read more Curious Minnesota stories:

Why are vehicle tabs more expensive in Minn. than in other states?

Why is Minnesota the only mainland state with an abundance of wolves?

Will Minnesota join push to switch to a national popular vote?

Minneapolis plows its alleyways. Why doesn't St. Paul?

Why do some major Twin Cities highways not connect directly?

Why is Minnesota more liberal than its neighboring states?

Correction: Previous versions of this article misidentified Lt. Gov. Joanne Benson in a photo.