“It’s early. Things can change, but it looks like this thing is going to turn out to be a smashing victory.”*
September 11, 1990
This year’s Republican primary featured a competitive four-way race for the party’s endorsement to run for governor against the DFL incumbent Mark Dayton. The last time the Republicans had a multi-candidate competitive primary for the governor in Minnesota was in 1990. That gubernatorial election would turn out to be one of the strangest in state history.
The 1990 governor’s race started out with sitting DFL governor, Rudy Perpich, choosing to seek an unprecedented third non-consecutive term. Because of this, many viewed the governor to be vulnerable to a good challenge from a respectable moderate Republican candidate. Prior to the endorsing convention there were four main candidates that emerged.
The early front-runner was David Printy, a successful businessman. He served as a Commissioner of Economic Development in the Quie administration. He was the most conservative of the candidates and had strong support from the social conservatives within the party. Close behind him was State Auditor Arnie Carlson. The hard-driving former legislator fashioned himself as the pro-choice moderate within the field and as a result, had sights on the primary. He recognized that the more conservative and mostly pro-life delegates would not endorse him. Also entering the race was a dark horse by the name of Doug Kelley. He was a political newcomer with an awesome resume — Green Beret, federal prosecutor and Chief of Staff to Sen. Dave Durenberger.
Not satisfied with the field, a group of aggressive young political upstarts including future governor Tim Pawlenty and future independent candidate for governor Tom Horner, started searching for an alternative. They felt the ideal candidate would be a person slightly more moderate than Printy, had a business background and could be viewed as a political outsider. After much debate they recruited Ecolab vice president Jon Grunseth. This team of upstarts was correct that the Republican delegates were looking for a fresh face and surprised everyone by winning the party’s endorsement at the convention.
Grunseth was not in the clear because he would have to face Carlson and Kelley in a highly contested primary. Most polling indicated that Carlson was in the lead going into the September 11 primary. Undaunted, the Republican Party and the Grunseth campaign had a very successful get out the vote effort leading them to victory with 169,451 votes. Carlson received 108,446 and Kelly came in third with 57,872 votes. With the minor candidates included, there were nearly 340,000 votes in the Republican Party primary in 1990.
Things were looking bright for the Grunseth team after the primary. Soon thereafter the wheels would completely come off their campaign, with the candidate dropping out in disgrace over infidelity charges and claims of inappropriate behavior around minors at a house party. After the Supreme Court intervened, Arnie Carlson was placed on the ballot as the Republican endorsed candidate late in October and would go on to win the general election against Rudy Perpich.
The lesson, of course, is that primary results tell you very little about how things will play out in the general election. Nonetheless the comparison of the 1990 race and the 2014 race for the Republican endorsement is an interesting contrast that gives us a peek into the political mood of Minnesota today leading up to the general election.
Last Tuesday, Republican endorsed candidate Jeff Johnson survived challenges from three credible candidates in the August 12 primary. He won with over 30% of the vote in the four-way race, receiving almost 56,000 votes. He bested his closest challenger, former Speaker of the House Kurt Zellers, by just over 12,000 votes. The total number of votes in the Republican primary for governor was 184,236.
The contrast that stands out most significantly is the severely low turnout in the 2014 race. It’s not an apples to apples comparison because the 1990 race was a September primary and this year’s was an August primary. Most political scientists believe summer primary elections have significantly less turnout. It is striking that the overall turnout this year was 9.6% compared to 29% in 1990. Also, compared to the August primary two years ago, the turnout again is down slightly.
Regardless of your political views, the contrast is stark. The only obvious conclusion is that there is not a lot of positive energy around the political endorsement process. What this means for the general election is unclear, but what we do know is there will be a lot of unknowns before November. Fortunately, it does not look like it will be as strange as the 1990 election.
*There is no November by Dave Hoium and Leon Oistad, Jeric Publications, 1991. Page 59