Al Franken’s Impending Resignation and the 40th Anniversary of the Minnesota Massacre

Amid calls from dozens of Democratic lawmakers in Washington for Minnesota Senator Al Franken (DFL) to resign in the wake of allegations of sexual assault and harassment, the Minnesota DFL must tread lightly in the upcoming months as it faces the potential for contesting three statewide elections in 2018 if Franken resigns.

In addition to Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s re-election bid and the wide-open DFL gubernatorial race, a special election for Franken’s seat (again, this is all predicated on him resigning) would set a course for a wild 11 months in the North Star State.

And, even more unkindly for the DFL, there’s some bad historical precedent.

We’re coming up on the 40-year anniversary of the “Minnesota Massacre,” the elections of 1978 in which DFL sort-of-incumbents Gov. Rudy Perpich and Sen. Wendell Anderson went down to defeat, and Bob Short lost a special election to replace the deceased Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey.

You see, none of those positions–Governor or either Senator–was held prior to the election by the man or woman elected to fill it:

  • December 30, 1976: Vice President-elect Walter Mondale resigns his Senate seat, and sitting Governor Wendell Anderson makes a deal with Lieutenant Governor Rudy Perpich. Anderson resigned as governor, and Gov. Perpich appointed him to fill the Senate seat through 1978, when Mondale would have been up for re-election.
  • January 13, 1978: Senator Hubert H. Humphrey dies, and Perpich appoints his widow, Muriel, to serve his term until a special election would be held in November 1978. This replacement for Humphrey would serve out his term until 1982.

Well, Minnesota Independent-Republicans (a much more moderate bunch back then) did not take kindly to these elite DFLers’ scheming. Worse yet for the DFL, its liberal and conservative wings, sometimes (but not always!) divided along Metro/outstate lines, were fracturing over a number of hot-button issues: the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, the Power Line controversy, and an abortion law which prohibited taxpayer-funded abortions unless the life of the mother was in danger. (You can read an excellent 2008 MinnPost piece on it, too.)

This first came to a boil in the battle for the U.S. Senate seats. Iron Range DFLers came to the June convention angry at environmentalists’ support for the BWCA bill, which would restrict motor use (including snowmobiles and motorboats) in a vast swath of northern Minnesota wilderness. Along with anti-abortion and gun rights activists in the DFL, this conservative faction supported Sen. Doug Johnson, a surrogate for businessman Bob Short, and held off the endorsement of liberal congressman Don Fraser (D-Mpls) for three ballots.

In the September primaries, aided by a large turnout among rural voters, particularly on the Iron Range, and a substantial Independent-Republican crossover vote, Short narrowly defeated Fraser to take on Dave Durenberger in the general election. Perpich gave up over 100,000 votes to the Farmer-Labor Association-supported Alice Tripp, a power line activist unhappy with the state’s supposed “railroading” of environmental and farmers’ concerns. Anderson’s approval ratings, already low, continued to plummet, though he avoided a real primary challenge.

Flash forward to November. This anti-incumbent, anti-DFL sentiment boiled over across the state. The election was preceded by nasty campaigning, as pro-life I-R activists flyered windshields outside Sunday church services on November 5, accusing Anderson and Perpich of being pro-abortion (Perpich was a devout Catholic and had signed the 1978 abortion restriction bill, but when have facts gotten in the way of a campaign?). The I-R itself campaigned across the state on one of my favorite slogans ever:

“Something scary is about to happen to the DFL. It’s called an election.”

Only three state constitutional offices staffed by DFLers survived the Massacre: Attorney General Warren Spannaus, Secretary of State Joan Growe, and Treasurer Jim Lord. Rudy Boschwitz pummeled Anderson, 56-40, to assume one Senate seat, and Dave Durenberger whipped Short, 61-35, to take the other. Perpich, the son of the Iron Range, lost a closer race to conservative U.S. Congressman Al Quie, 52-45, dropping both Hennepin and Ramsey counties and all the suburban counties except Anoka. Boschwitz would serve until his defeat by Paul Wellstone in 1990, Durenberger declined to run for re-election amid scandal in 1994 but was replaced by the I-R’s Rod Grams through 2000, and Perpich took back the governorship from Quie in 1982.

Now, I should reiterate: Recounting this and pointing out its importance is all predicated on the likelihood that Al Franken resigns his Senate seat.

While Franken may be exiting the Senate under very different circumstances, though, the perils of three open statewide seats should be apparent to DFLers in Minnesota. There are still vocal coalitions in Minnesota politics, including the Iron Range and now a much more outspoken urban constituency in the Twin Cities. Adding politics of gender and the current climate surrounding allegations of sexual assault and impropriety to them will only dump fuel on the fire. The DFL has historically…struggled with those challenges.

Being an historian-in-training, I’m even worse predicting future events, but with a crammed gubernatorial field, an open Senate seat may allow the party to vent off some of its internal pressures and run two qualified candidates for two open seats, rather than eating its own in a hotly-contested primary. From various sites including MinnPost and Ballotpedia, here are the DFLers considering or officially running:

  • Chris Coleman, Mayor of Saint Paul
  • State Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester)
  • State Rep. Erin Murphy (DFL-Saint Paul)
  • State Auditor Rebecca Otto
  • State Rep. Paul Thissen (DFL-Minneapolis)
  • U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, with running mate State Rep. Peggy Flanagan (DFL-St. Louis Park)
  • Potential: State Rep. Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook)
  • Potential: Attorney General Lori Swanson

I like Coleman and Walz to emerge from this process, though if the Iron Range flexes its muscle behind Bakk in the process, things could heat up in a hurry. That, of course, does nothing to answer the question of whether a woman should run for Franken’s seat (and there’s a very compelling case for “yes”), in which case Otto or Swanson would likely have more name recognition, but it’s anyone’s guess.

The Republican side is…wide open, to say the least. The GOP’s gubernatorial candidate in 2014, Jeff Johnson, has declared for governor again in 2018, as have State Rep. Matt Dean (R-Dellwood), former Republican Party Chair Keith Downey, and a handful of other state representatives and senators. Lurking off in the distance are more prominent GOPers like Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt, State Sen. Karin Housley, U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, and…even Tim Pawlenty?

Time will tell.

But while the circumstances of three statewide elections have changed, including Klobuchar’s incumbency, a wildly unpopular and un-Minnesotan president, and vulnerable incumbent U.S. Representatives like DFLer Collin Peterson and Republican Jason Lewis; there is precedent for understanding these tumultuous times in Minnesota politics.