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Thirty years ago it was the Republicans' year

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Hubert Humphrey's funeral
The body of U.S. Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey lying in state in State Capitol rotunda in January 1978. Humphrey's death was the catalyst for a disastrous election for the Minnesota DFL Party in November of that year.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The morning after the votes were counted, newspaper columnists like Minneapolis Star's Austin Wehrwein had already settled on a name for the election of 1978.

"Well, it's being called the Minnesota massacre," he said.

And the name stuck. The Republicans had won it all, scoring upset victories in all the major races. Al Quie would be governor. Rudy Boschwitz would take one U.S. Senate seat, and David Durenberger would take the other.

All three of those seats had previously belonged to DFLers. Democrats had dominated the Legislature, too. Going into the election Republicans had held just over a quarter of the seats in the Minnesota House. The 1978 election nearly doubled their ranks, as Bob Potter announced that morning on Minnesota Public Radio.

"It looks now, according to the Associated Press that there will be an exact even number of Independent Republicans and DFLers in the Minnesota Legislature," he said. "The returns indicate that each party will hold exactly 67 seats."

He said "Independent Republicans" because that's what the party was called in Minnesota back then. And the story behind that name helps underline just how impressive that '78 victory was.

Durenberger and Quie
Former Sen. David Durenberger (l) and former Gov. Al Quie.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

Remember, this was only four years after Republican President Richard Nixon had resigned in disgrace. Chuck Slocum chaired the Minnesota Republican Party during the aftermath of Watergate.

"We had, I think, 9 percent, 10 percent of the people saying 'I'm proud to say I'm a Republican.' And we recognized that the word Republican, the name Republican was a negative," he said.

So Slocum led the charge to change the name. But even in a political environment that seemed toxic to Republicans, he sensed there might be an opportunity for a comeback. Buoyed by their dominance, Slocum said the DFL had overplayed its hand.

"There wasn't significant debate," he said. "It was basically,'what do you want?' If you were a DFLer, and the gavel went down it happened. And taxes and spending had increased rapidly, well beyond the rate of inflation."

And this was the late 1970s, a time when inflation was high and rising higher. The economy was souring. The public was getting fed up with Democratic President Jimmy Carter. Clearly national issues played a role. 

Wendell Anderson
Former Gov. Wendell Anderson
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

But Democrats did much better nationally that year than they did in Minnesota. So what accounts for the difference? Wendell Anderson was one of the DFLers running for Senate that year.

"I played my political hand very poorly," he said.

Anderson had been an incredibly popular Minnesota governor with a 70 percent approval rating in 1976. But then he made a monumental political blunder. 

Nineteen-seventy-six was the year Carter was elected. Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale was his vice president. 

As governor, it fell to Anderson to appoint someone to fill out Mondale's term. And Anderson decided to appoint himself.

"I think that was a big mistake, and I think taking a knife and cutting both my legs off would also be a big mistake," he said.

Anderson resigned as governor. Lt. Gov. Rudy Perpich took his place, and sent Anderson to Washington.

Rudy Perpich
DFLer Rudy Perpich was defeated in the November 1978 election in his bid for the governor's office.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Then in January of '78, there was another big event that set the stage for the Republican landslide.

Sen. Hubert Humphrey died.

Humphrey's wife Muriel was appointed to represent Minnesota for the rest of the year. But then his seat would be filled in a special election. So, there you had it. All three major statewide posts, held by Democrats who weren't elected to them.   Dave Durenberger and Al Quie will never forget the slogan the Independent Republicans unveiled around Halloween, 1978.

"Something scary is going to the DFL, it's called an election." 

The Republicans united around that message. Quie would take on Perpich. Boschwitz went after Anderson. Republican power brokers asked Durenberger, who was originally running for governor, to go after the Humphrey Senate seat. 

"And I said yes," Durenberger said, "and all the rest is history. Although I must tell you that even going into the election day, I did not expect to win."

But Humphrey' death threw the Democrats into disarray. The DFL endorsed Rep. Don Fraser, a Minneapolis liberal, to run for the Senate seat. But a conservative Democrat named Bob Short decided to challenge Fraser in a primary. Short and Fraser clashed over environmental issues and abortion. 

The primary was so close that the Pioneer Press declared Fraser the winner. But when votes came in from the Iron Range, it turned out Short had won. Durenberger attributes his large victory margins in part to those disaffected Fraser backers.

"Wednesday morning after the Minnesota primary, there was a line a mile long outside of my campaign office in Bloomington of liberal Democrats saying, 'No way are we going to support Bob Short,'" Durenberger said

When Short conceded to Durenberger in '78, he said much the same thing.

"Because they did disagree with me on issues of major consequence to them, that they couldn't help and in some cases even encouraged those who were against me," he said.

Rudy Boschwitz
Republican Rudy Boschwitz won election to the U.S. Senate in 1978, as part of what observers call the "Minnesota Massacre," when Republicans won the three top elected offices in the state.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Minneapolis mayor Al Hofstede put it even more succinctly.

"Divided we lose. There's nothing complex about this election."

It was not an especially bad year for Democrats nationally, but the elections that followed were. 

In a way the Minnesota Massacre was a harbinger of the Reagan revolution that would begin two years later.

But Boschwitz says there's an inexorable pattern in American politics. Parties gain power. Politicians overreach, and then the voters put them back in their place.

"When you're in office a long time, you tend to loose touch with the people who have a sense of your own importance," he said.

Boschwitz said he "fell into that trap" in 1990. That was the year a liberal named Paul Wellstone took Boschwitz's seat back for the DFL. 

Durenberger served until 1995, and was caught up in an ethics scandal during his final term. Quie did not seek re-election in 1982. Perpich and the DFL re-captured the governor's office that year.