MINNEAPOLIS — Last-minute allegations that hurt the incumbent. A statewide vote with only a tiny fraction separating the Democrat and the Republican. Teams of lawyers mobilized around the state to challenge questionable ballots.
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The 2008 U.S. Senate race between incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken? Yes — and Minnesota's 1962 governor's race, the last time that Election Day produced no clear winner for one of the two big elected posts in the state.
The 1962 race wasn't resolved until the following March, when the candidate who initially appeared to win found his lead reversed and decided not to pursue further legal challenges.
The tension and hardball tactics of the 1962 recount belie the notion that politics was more civil back in the day.
Lots of ugly accusations
"There were lots of ugly accusations. Things were more partisan back then than people will admit now," said Tom Swain, now 87. He was the campaign manager for Republican Gov. Elmer Andersen, the recount's loser. "Accusations, acrimony — it was all flying. Some of it was well-intentioned, and some of it was over the top."
Anderson, elected two years earlier, faced Democrat Karl Rolvaag for Minnesota's first four-year gubernatorial term, following a change to the state constitution. Andersen was one of what's now a nearly extinct breed, the liberal Republican, favoring generous social programs and often governing to the left even of many of the state's rural Democrats.
Rolvaag was the lieutenant governor — at the time a separately elected position — and son of novelist Ole Rolvaag, who wrote "Giants in the Earth," a minor classic about Norwegian immigrants.
The younger Rolvaag "had a big heart, but was also stubborn, so stubborn," recalled Mary Lou Klas, now 78, who as a young lawyer worked for Rolvaag during the recount and later served 14 years as a judge. "He was a party man, through and through."
In an echo of this year's Senate race — colored by late allegations that a friend of Coleman cooked up a scheme to funnel him $75,000 — the 1962 race was shaken in its closing days when Democrats accused Andersen of pushing through shoddy construction of a section of Interstate 35 near Hinckley in order to take credit for its completion.
"There was a considerable belief that if the Highway 35 story hadn't broken, Andersen would have won pretty easily," said Iric Nathanson, a Minneapolis historian.
The allegation was later disproved.
Getting a recount required lawsuit
A few days after election night, the state canvassing board declared Andersen the winner by 142 votes out of about 1.4 million cast. Proportionately, that's not quite as close as the 215-vote advantage Coleman held over Franken out of nearly 3 million cast.
Unlike today, state law didn't trigger an automatic recount for the tightest margins. Rolvaag had to sue to get the recount going.
Both sides assembled teams of lawyers and other experts to monitor the recounts. "I gave our people Christmas morning off, but we were back at work that afternoon," Swain said.
Homer Bonhiver, now 91, was part of a team of CPAs dispatched by Rolvaag to identify precincts where his vote totals were lower than expected.
"Of course, back then there were no computers involved and few voting machines. It was all done by hand," Bonhiver said. "So there was plenty of room for error."
The two sides challenged more than 90,000 ballots. Screening panels set up by the two parties narrowed the number of disputed ballots to 1,300.
On Feb. 25, the two campaigns appeared before a panel of three judges to argue how or if each of the disputed ballots should be counted.
'Work hard and stay cool'
On March 15, the panel ruled that Rolvaag had been elected by a margin of 91 votes.
Swain said Republican legislative leaders begged Andersen to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
"The lawyers and I sat down with Elmer and told him we thought there was no legal basis for an appeal," Swain said. "And he recognized that, and he drafted a concession speech that was marvelous, and he passed on the torch to Karl Rolvaag."
In 1966, Rolvaag lost his re-election bid for a second term to Republican Harold LeVander. Rolvaag died in 1990.
Andersen lived to 95, dying in 2004 shortly after endorsing Democrat John Kerry for president.
Swain, just re-elected mayor of the tiny St. Paul suburb of Lilydale, said he doubted he'd hear from either of the current Senate campaigns seeking advice. But if they did, what would he say?
"Work hard," Swain said. "And stay cool."
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