A Brief History of Minnesota Presidential Primaries

The Gopher State has seen its presidential primary laws repealed three times over the last century; Minnesota Republicans have held five presidential primaries with four for the Democrats

minnesotaseal20On Tuesday, Minnesota will be one of several states on which the nation’s eyes will be fixed – with both the Republican and Democratic presidential caucuses expected to be competitive.

For the sixth consecutive cycle Minnesota will not hold a presidential primary – the method by which a majority of states have tied the selection of delegates to national party conventions since the 1970s.

In the 2016 cycle, states from all four regions of the country hold caucuses for at least one of its two major parties, although the vast majority are located in the Midwest (Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, Nebraska) and West (Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Washington, Wyoming). Maine is the lone state in the northeast to still use caucuses and Kentucky Republicans are doing so in the South this cycle as well.

Minnesota’s history with the presidential primary has been a particularly unusual one – coming and going every three to four decades.

The Gopher State was at the forefront of codifying primaries into its state laws. A 1901 law established primaries for a variety of non-statewide offices such as seats in the U.S. House and the state legislature beginning in 1902.

Primaries for statewide offices did not come into play for another decade in 1912.

That cycle also saw the first wave of presidential primaries in 13 states including several in the Midwest – Illinois, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

Minnesota quickly followed suit and established a presidential primary for the first time in 1913 (to be held on the second Tuesday in March) joining three other Midwestern states holding their debut primaries in the 1916 cycle: Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan.

In the March 14th primary, Woodrow Wilson ran unopposed on the Democratic side and former Iowa Governor Albert Cummins was victorious in a three-candidate GOP field with 76.8 percent of the vote against orator Henry Estabrook and Illinois attorney and politician William Webster.

However, in March 1917, as the progressive fervor that had inspired the passage of many primary laws across the nation began to wane, Minnesota repealed its primary law after just one cycle (Iowa did likewise).

Even so, the Republican Party of Minnesota decided to hold a primary on its own in the 1920 cycle with four candidates competing in the race: U.S. Army Major General Leonard Wood, California progressive U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson, American Relief Commission Chair Herbert Hoover, and Illinois Governor Frank Lowden.

The March 15th primary was rife with controversy with polls only open for an hour and inadequate announcements of polling station locations. Senator Johnson was critical of the process, claiming it had “disenfranchised farmers.”

Wood – one of the frontrunners that cycle – won the primary with Johnson a distant second followed by Hoover and Lowden.

That would be the last presidential primary held in the state through the 1940s.

However, in 1949, the GOP-controlled Minnesota legislature resurrected the primary in order to bolster the national prospects of former Governor Harold Stassen.

Stassen had previously won presidential primaries in 1944 (Nebraska) and 1948 (Nebraska, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wisconsin) and placed third in the 1948 convention balloting behind New York Governor Thomas Dewey and Ohio U.S. Senator Robert Taft.

The 1949 law was written to allow candidates to file to appear on the ballot, as well as permit a party member to submit the name of a candidate with petitions of at least 100 voters from each congressional district.

Even more interesting, however, was the law’s controversial provision that any candidate who was thusly ‘drafted’ and did not wish to appear on the ballot had to sign an affidavit stating he would not accept his party’s nomination that cycle if it were offered.

At this time war heroes Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower were rumored presidential candidates and, should they be drafted onto the Minnesota ballot, they would be forced into one of two potentially unattractive positions: suffer a (likely) loss to the favorite son Stassen or unequivocally take themselves out of the race (thus making the national pathway easier for Stassen).

A draft MacArthur effort landed him on the ballot, at which point the general asked his name be withdrawn.

Although MacArthur did not sign the aforementioned pledge, ultimately this portion of the primary law was struck down by former Minnesota Republican Attorney General (and former Governor) J.A.A. Burnquist.

A MacArthur state chair named Edward Slettedahl subsequently filed to run in the general’s place.

Petitions were also filed for Eisenhower whose name was also subsequently removed – with some believing party loyalists backing Stassen were behind that maneuver.

However, Stassen’s candidacy was ultimately a ‘stalking horse’ for Eisenhower with the former governor securing delegates for the NATO Supreme Commander who was unable to campaign in the states. (Stassen’s 19 delegates from Minnesota put Eisenhower over the top at that summer’s RNC to defeat Senator Taft after the first ballot).

In the end, Stassen won 44.2 percent of the vote in the Minnesota primary and a vigorous write-in campaign for Eisenhower – driven in part by a misunderstanding among the GOP electorate as to the motives of Stassen’s campaign – landed him at a close second with 37.1 percent. Eisenhower even placed first in two congressional districts.

Stassen’s plurality win in the face of the strong write-in campaign for Eisenhower weakened the former governor’s candidacy in the primary states that followed which created a worst case scenario for the Stassen/Eisenhower alliance: victories by Senator Taft two weeks later in both Nebraska and Wisconsin and three weeks later in Illinois.

All told, the plan hatched by the state GOP in 1949 in devising the primary law to boost the influence of Stassen produced many more headaches and unintended consequences than they ever could have imagined.

There was much less drama on the DFL side of the 1952 primary ballot where favorite son U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey won with 80 percent of the vote.

However, with Eisenhower running unopposed for reelection four years later, all the primary drama in Minnesota in 1956 was with the Democrats.

The party establishment candidate that cycle was Adlai Stevenson who lost handily to Eisenhower in the 1952 general election. Senator Humphrey had hoped to be Stevenson’s vice-presidential running mate.

Tennessee U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver had challenged Stevenson in 1952 and won 12 primaries.

Kefauver was up for another White House bid in 1956 and had the support of some leaders from greater Minnesota, such as freshman U.S. Representative Coya Knutson – the first female elected to Congress from the Gopher State.

Stevenson was the early favorite to win the March 15th primary, but Kefauver surged to win by 13 points – a humiliating defeat for him, Humphrey, and the DFL.

Stevenson ultimately won the nomination, but as a result of these two back-to-back embarrassing experiments in presidential primaries, DFL and GOP lawmakers agreed to repeal the primary law in 1957.

For the next eight cycles, Minnesota returned to caucusing until a 1989 law established a presidential primary to be held on the fourth Tuesday in February.

Attempts were made in the state legislature to derail the primary before the 1992 contest, but it had a champion in Republican Governor Arne Carlson who defended the primary for turning out more voters than the caucuses.

In 1992, both parties continued to hold caucuses and only the Republican primary was binding in the delegate count.

On the DFL side, the presidential preference vote was a beauty contest in which Bill Clinton edged California Governor Jerry Brown by a shade over 1,000 votes.

The Republican primary saw incumbent George H.W. Bush cruise to a 39.7-point win over Pat Buchanan with former Governor Stassen placing fourth in one of his last presidential bids – just behind uncommitted – at 3.1 percent.

Critics prevailed in 1995, citing the high costs of holding the April primary, and the primary was subsequently suspended for the 1996 cycle. That decision became solidified in 1999 when the primary law was officially repealed for the third time in state history.

Unsuccessful efforts have been made by legislators over the last decade to restore the primary to Minnesota with some attempting to bring the state into a “Midwest primary” day.

Until then, Minnesotans will be joining their neighbors to the south (Iowa) and west (North Dakota) and caucusing for at least one more cycle.

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5 Comments on "A Brief History of Minnesota Presidential Primaries"

  1. 1. I suppose AR does qualify as a state of the “West” – not unlike CO, WY, and UT, it is located west of the River Mississippi! (paragraph 4)
    2. My surmise is that the Bluegrass State will revert back to holding a primary contest in future cycles – states of the Southern section are generally averse to holding precinct caucuses, and Senator McConnell is highly unlikely to try for both federal offices in 2020!
    3. Whatever the merits of the caucuses, it does seem distinctive and refreshing that a number of states are sticking (again) with them – just as a score of them are rejecting imposed term limits on state-level offices (ND, et.al).

  2. Ken MacKellar | April 8, 2016 at 10:54 pm | Reply

    Kefauver won 14 primaries in 1952, and did not drop out before the convention. He led on the first ballot, but Stevenson won on the third. Minnesota was the only primary he did not contest, because he was a close confidant of Humphrey’s

    • Correct – it was 1956 when Kefauver ran out of money and dropped out before the convention. In 1952, I count Kefauver as winning a dozen state primaries: New Hampshire, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maryland, Ohio, Oregon, California, and South Dakota. On the 1st ballot at the DNC he also had a plurality or majority of state delegates from Michigan, Tennessee, Washington, and the Alaska territory.

  3. The 1956 primary was held on March 20 not March 15. Was the 1992 primary supposed to be the 4th week in February when and why the decision made to move it to April 7? Thanks

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