The Magazine

A Less Liberal Minnesota?

On his feet again after the Ventura takedown, Norm Coleman eyes the Senate.

Jun 24, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 40 • By BARRY CASSELMAN
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Five years ago, the Democratic mayor of St. Paul switched parties. The move was scripted to be a disaster for the party Norm Coleman was leaving. He had worked under two popular Democratic attorneys general, then was elected mayor of the state capital. Clearly a political talent, Coleman not only had begun to reverse St. Paul's economic decline, he had ambitions to be governor. But he had a problem. A pro-business, moderate DFLer, as Democrats are known in Minnesota (for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party), Coleman was pro-life. The DFL establishment had become overwhelmingly pro-choice, and it was made clear to Coleman that his political ambitions would have to stop at the city line.

Amid considerable hoopla, Coleman embraced his new party, and won reelection in 1997. With no obvious Republican in line to succeed the popular Republican governor, the moderate (and pro-choice) Arne Carlson, Coleman emerged as the party's candidate for governor in 1998. As it turned out, his DFL opponent was Hubert (Skip) Humphrey III, state attorney general and the man under whom Coleman had served as solicitor general before running for mayor. A huge battle loomed. Coleman, coached by party leaders, presented himself as an economic and social conservative, in contrast to the traditional liberal Humphrey, son of the legendary Minnesota senator and former vice president. Then the unexpected happened.

A local talk show host, once mayor of a Minneapolis suburb and before that a professional wrestler, decided to run for governor on the ticket of the marginal Independence party. Jesse Ventura was treated as a joke by the two major parties and the media. With Coleman and Humphrey locked in a tight race through the summer and autumn, Ventura remained under 10 percent in the polls until September.

Then three critical developments precipitated Ventura's sudden rise. First, it was decided to include him in the public debates that have become a hallmark of Minnesota statewide elections. One reason for the decision was that the Independence party candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1996 had received more than 5 percent of the vote, the threshold for entitlement to campaign funds from a state income-tax check-off. Second, as a consequence of the Independence party's entitlement, the Ventura campaign received a sudden infusion of cash, more than $300,000, in the final weeks of the race.

Finally, both Humphrey and Coleman were advised to stick to their campaign scripts, repeating over and over the mantras their respective consultants and aides had determined would sway voters. In the debates, Humphrey and Coleman sounded programmed and wooden, in contrast to the populist Ventura, whose performance was colorful, ungrammatical, and plain-spoken. What's more, Ventura was something new--a centrist populist. On Election Day, Ventura beat Coleman by only 50,000 votes (out of more than 2.4 million cast), with Humphrey coming in a humiliating third.

Coleman threw himself back into his job as mayor of St. Paul, and over the next three years accomplished his most dramatic successes. These included the construction of an arena to house a restored St. Paul NHL franchise, considerable downtown construction, several new corporate headquarters, museums, restaurants, and the attendant new jobs, all without any tax increases during his eight years as mayor.

After he left office in January 2002, Coleman announced he would run again for governor. But he had distanced himself from many in the GOP who had supported his candidacy in 1998, and the Republican establishment had already coalesced behind a political neophyte with conservative views, a successful business background, and millions of his own money to spend on the campaign. Many urged Coleman to run instead for the U.S. Senate seat held by DFLer Paul Wellstone, who had broken a pledge to limit himself to two terms. Then in the spring, President Bush called Coleman to ask him to run for the Senate seat. Facing a flight of financial support from his race for governor, and universal GOP support if he heeded President Bush's request, Coleman did an about-face and announced he would run against Wellstone.

Since then, much has gone well for Coleman. He has toured the country to raise funds, often teaming up with two other GOP Senate challengers from nearby states--John Thune of South Dakota and Jim Talent of Missouri, both of whom also have excellent chances of defeating incumbent Democrats this year. (In fact, if the party is to retake control of the Senate, each of these "Three Republican Musketeers" must probably win in November.) President Bush came to Minnesota recently and raised about $2 million for Coleman in a single night.