updated 7/16/2008 5:12:06 PM ET 2008-07-16T21:12:06

Minnesota has long been a distinctive commonwealth, set far in America’s frozen North, a state which in commerce, culture and politics has set one example after another for the rest of the nation. It is the node of transcontinental railroads that linked the winter wheat fields of the northern prairies to the greatest grain-milling center in the world and the great Pacific ports of Puget Sound. It is also the birthplace of Scotch tape, Betty Crocker, Target and the Mall of America, the home base of dyspeptic chroniclers of small town America from Sinclair Lewis to Garrison Keillor. Politically, Minnesota for much of the 20th century provided the nation with some of its most articulate and honorable leaders—Harold Stassen, Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale—and with traditions of probity, civic-mindedness and innovation which are second to none. Yet while commercially and culturally Minnesota has never been stronger, its recent political history has been unusual. After a dozen years in which the two political parties, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor and Republican, were dominated by activists of left and right who were stubbornly out of touch with ordinary people, the voters in 1998 elected as governor a former professional wrestler and suburban mayor, Jesse “The Body” Ventura. What had been one of the nation’s more heavily Democratic states became a target very much up for grabs. Ventura retired from politics in 2002, and Republicans seemed to seize the tide. Tim Pawlenty was elected governor and Norm Coleman senator by impressive margins. In 2004 Minnesota was a target state, carried by John Kerry by a 51%-48% margin. Then in 2006 the DFL seized the tide. Pawlenty was reelected by only a 47%-46% margin and the DFL’s Amy Klobuchar was elected to the Senate by a huge margin. The DFL, already holding the state Senate, gained control of the state House and picked up the 1st Congressional District seat as well. Has Minnesota become a solidly DFL state again, as it was during much of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s?

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Minnesota’s distinctive traditions come from a distinctive history. The far northern states were ignored by most Yankee immigrants, who headed straight west into Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas. But others saw opportunity in Minnesota’s icy lakes and ferocious winters. James J. Hill, the builder of the Great Northern Railroad (“You can’t interest me in any proposition in any place where it doesn’t snow”), and others operating out of Minneapolis and St. Paul—already twin cities by 1860—worked to attract Norwegian, Swedish and German migrants who would find the terrain and climate congenial. By 1890, the Twin Cities—rivals that year in a Census competition—were the nerve center of a sprawling and rich agricultural empire stretching west from Minnesota through the Dakotas and into Montana and beyond. Minneapolis and St. Paul became the termini of its rail lines and the site of its grain-milling companies.

The Twin Cities also became the center of a three-party politics and an economic radicalism reminiscent of the politics of Scandinavia. For our American regions seem a mirror image of the geography of Europe, with the East Coast resembling the British Isles and France, the industrial Midwest reminiscent of Germany and Poland, the relatively poor and always hawkish South a Baptist Mediterranean, and the Upper Midwest of Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota as North American versions of Scandinavia. The Scandinavian flavor of life lives on: You can get lutefisk (smelly lye-soaked cod) around Christmastime in Minneapolis restaurants (though you probably don’t want to). It extends also to politics. Like Scandinavia, these Upper Midwestern commonwealths pioneered their continent’s welfare states, with an effect on public policy far out of proportion to their numbers. Alarmed by the unprecedented concentration of economic power and wealth into the hands of just a few identifiable millionaires who lived on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue or the hill above Minneapolis’s Hennepin Avenue, the immigrants drew on their native traditions of cooperative activity and bureaucratic socialism.

As in Wisconsin and North Dakota, a strong third party developed here in the years after the Populist era. This Farmer-Labor Party elected senators in the 1920s and dominated state politics in the 1930s. Hurt by their ties to Communists, the Farmer-Laborites were beaten by Harold Stassen’s Republicans in 1938. But this was still a New Deal state, and by 1944 the bedraggled local Democrats were merged with the anti-Communist faction of Farmer-Laborites to form the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. A key role was played by Hubert Humphrey—mayor of Minneapolis in 1945, and the dazzling advocate of the civil rights plank at the 1948 Democratic National Convention. Humphrey’s DFL—clean, idealistic, closely tied to labor, backed by many farmers—attracted dozens of talented politicians, including Eugene McCarthy, Orville Freeman and Walter Mondale. In 1948 Humphrey’s speech helped put the Democrats on record for civil rights, and he was elected to the Senate at age 37.

In the years that followed, the DFL dominated Minnesota politics, while a series of progressive companies led the development of a strong, diversified economy. The DFL stood for a generous, compassionate government, for strong labor unions and high wages, for an expansionist fiscal policy to encourage consumer-led economic growth, for civil rights, and for an anti-Communist, but not bombastic, foreign policy. Its base was among blue-collar workers in the Twin Cities, in Duluth and the Iron Range, and among farmers of Scandinavian origin. Minnesota’s business leaders were conservative politically and innovation-minded in their work. New entrepreneurs rose in the 1990s, and Minnesota’s incomes rose to 11th in the nation; the slowdown after 2000 was less severe than in many other states. It is part of a long pattern: Minnesota’s economy hums along, growing robustly in prosperous years and not falling behind in recessions, and squeaky-clean if sometimes eccentric Minnesota has levels of crime, divorce and aberrant behavior most states should envy. From 1990 to 2006, Minnesota’s population grew by 18%, significantly more than any other Midwestern state though behind the national rate of 20%.

Minnesota has more social connectedness than any other large state, Robert Putnam notes in Bowling Alone, and this spirit of civic participation is echoed in the party precinct caucuses and party conventions. The early DFLers were proud of this system, which allowed plenty of political participation and ended control by party bosses. But by the 1980s the conventions came to be dominated not by laborite Humphrey followers or the wives of management Republicans, but by left-wingers and counterculturites, right-wing abortion opponents and religious hardliners. The result was the nomination of left-wing and right-wing candidates often rejected by the voters in primaries or general elections and in shrill, off-putting political rhetoric. All this left Minnesota open to the appeal of Jesse Ventura, candidate of the Independence party in 1998. Ventura was already known to Twin Cities television viewers—nearly three-quarters of the state’s voters—and his clever ads tended to overshadow his more conventional rivals, Attorney General Skip Humphrey and DFL-turned-Republican St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. Ventura scored in the low teens in most polls, but he sparked a huge rise in turnout—Minnesota has Election Day registration—and won with 37% of the vote, to 34% for Coleman and only 28% for Humphrey—less than half the 60% his father won in his first electrifying election for senator exactly 50 years earlier.

Ventura pulled out a new electorate in the Minneapolis-St. Paul media market beyond the Twin Cities core of Hennepin and Ramsey Counties. In 2002 this area went heavily Republican, voting 51%-30% for Pawlenty and 56%-41% for Coleman over former Vice President and Senator Walter Mondale, who had been nominated to run in the late Paul Wellstone’s place. In 2004 George W. Bush carried the area 54%-45%, not quite enough to overcome the big DFL margins in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties and on the Iron Range. In 2006 Pawlenty carried the area 54%-39%, which was barely enough. This is family country and by far the fastest growing part of Minnesota—most counties outside it lost rather than gained population between 2000 and 2006. But the DFL constituency in the Iron Range has deep roots and Hennepin and Ramsey County, which have relatively few children, have by that fact a higher proportion of adults who can be rallied to the polls by DFL activists. That leaves Minnesota in something of a balance. The DFL won big victories in 2006, but has not elected a governor since 1986. DFL leaders in the legislature are aware that they hold majorities only because of seats won in the suburbs and so promised to proceed cautiously and not to the rhythm of their left-wing activists. So national Republicans, when they assemble for their national convention in St. Paul in 2008 (the second in the area; they met in Minneapolis in 1892), will not be on entirely hostile turf, and the DFL mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis have been careful to be Minnesota nice.

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