The Political Enigma of Minnesota

Hubert Humphrey vice presidential portrait.jpg

Hubert Humphrey, the Democrat who turned Minnesota blue.

In 1980 and 1984, the United States overwhelmingly elected Ronald Reagan to the presidency, but there was one state that the Gipper never won, and that was Minnesota. Minnesota has been a bit of an odd one among the states, as it has had the longest run of Democratic victories in presidential elections to date yet today it is far from the most liberal state. Contrary to its current reputation as a Democratic state, it started Republican.

Although Minnesota’s first two senators were Democrats, they both would be replaced by Republicans, beginning a Republican domination of the state as the people there were staunchly anti-slavery and the Civil War resulted in Democrats rarely being elected to Congress. However, the conservative orthodoxy of the eastern-based GOP was not satisfactory to all in the state, and a split between progressives and conservatives arose. As it became clear that conservatives were not going to be budged out of party control in the state, progressives tried pursuing options outside of the Republican and Democratic parties. In 1892, the Republican candidate for the first time won without a majority of the vote. In 1912, the state voted for Theodore Roosevelt over Taft and more significantly in 1916 the Republican candidate won by a mere 10th of a percent. Alternatives to the Republican Party were proving viable for Progressives, but voters were not quite ready for Democrats yet. Enter the Farmer-Labor Party.

In 1922, the Farmer-Labor Party ran a slate of candidates and had some significant successes: Republican Frank B. Kellogg lost reelection to Henrik Shipstead and longtime House incumbents Andrew J. Volstead (of the infamous Volstead Act of Prohibition) and Halvor Steenerson lost reelection to Farmer-Laborites. These were fed-up left-wing Republicans who were also non-interventionist. The latter combined with the continuing Civil War legacy prevented them from merging with the Democrats during the New Deal years. However, a young Democrat would come along who would change everything. Hubert Humphrey was crucial in the 1944 fusion of the Democrats and Farmer-Laborers. The people in the Farmer-Labor Party who were more on the right, such as Shipstead, had migrated back to the Republican Party. The Democratic Party in the state has since had the unique name, Democratic-Farmer-Labor. This merger began paying out dividends in the short-run. In 1945, Humphrey won the mayoral election in Minneapolis and gained a reputation as a staunch liberal. Three years later, he made a resounding speech on civil rights at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, calling on the Democratic Party “to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights” (Nathanson). This speech was crucial in getting a civil rights plank into the Democratic Party platform for the first time. That year, Humphrey won a full Senate term by defeating the Republican incumbent by a whopping 20 points, a first for a Democrat since before the Civil War. By 1959, the Democratic Party was dominant.

Other Minnesota liberals would follow Humphrey into success, including Eugene McCarthy and Walter Mondale. Both Humphrey and Mondale would serve as Vice President and McCarthy would run a peace campaign for president in 1968.The state has leaned Democrat since the merger as the left in the state was able to get organized effectively. However, Republicans may have some cause for optimism. The Democrats won the state by only about 1.5% in 2016 and got the lowest percent of the vote in a two-way race since they lost the state in the 1972 election. Although Republicans lost two suburban districts in 2016, they gained two rural ones that year as well. If Trump can win Minnesota like he claims in 2020 and the suburban losses prove temporary, it may be the start of a new era for the state. When the Democrats began to turn affairs in their favor in the state, the Republicans had been the dominant party for 80-90 years. So the Dems may still have some time, but don’t count out the Republicans.


Nathanson, I. (2011, May 23). ‘Into the bright sunshine’ – Hubert Humphrey’s civil rights agenda. Minn Post.

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