The Minnesota Massacre

On November 7, 1978, President Jimmy Carter, as have most presidents, faced a midterm. Midterms tend not to go well for the president’s party. They were not bad historically speaking nationwide as although Democrats lost seats in quite a few places but they partially mitigated it by winning in other places and they held both chambers. This has, as of the time of writing, been the last time this would happen for the president’s party in a midterm. One place, however, in which the election was an unmitigated disaster for them was in Minnesota. This massacre was not any sort of shootout, rather it was a political massacre closer to the sense that Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” was one.

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Wendell Anderson, the most prominent casualty of the “Minnesota Massacre”.

1976 in a number of ways was a good election year for Minnesota Democrats. Walter Mondale was the second Minnesota Democrat to be elected vice president, and the other Minnesota Democrat to have been vice president, Hubert Humphrey, was reelected as expected. However, in the wake of this success it was little known that an era was about to end. With Mondale in the vice presidency, Governor Wendell Anderson, who was polished, young, popular, and a rising star in the Democratic Party, took his opportunity. He resigned and had his successor, Lieutenant Governor Rudy Perpich, appoint him to the Senate. The story of the other senator, on the other hand, was a sad affair. Humphrey had for years been having problems with his bladder and on August 18, 1977, his surgeon declared his cancer “terminal”; it had spread to his pelvis and was inoperable. On January 13, 1978, he died and his widow Muriel was appointed to hold the seat until the next election. The primary to succeed Humphrey was a bitter one between staunch liberal Minneapolis Congressman Don Fraser and more moderate businessman Bob Short, with the latter pulling off a narrow victory. The three Democrats holding all positions were unelected to them, making the seats particularly vulnerable. The Republicans capitalized on this as much as they could and played it smart by nominating for Senate David Durenberger and Rudy Boschwitz and for Governor Congressman Al Quie. None of these men were doctrinaire conservatives, rather ranged from moderate to moderate conservative. Anderson’s move was highly unpopular and it reflected poorly on Perpich as well, and the former serves as one of eight examples why governors getting themselves appointed to the Senate by their successors is a terrible idea. On election day 1978, Durenberger wrecked Short, prevailing by 26 points as many liberal Democrats preferred a moderate Republican to an insufficiently liberal Democrat. Boschwitz knocked out Anderson by 16 points, and Quie defeated Perpich by 7 points. Anderson and Short never ran for elected office again, a stunning turn for the former who had at one time been speculated as a vice president pick. The latter might have had further political aspirations, but he died in 1982. Quie, however, opted not to run again in 1982 after a difficult term, enabling Perpich to make a comeback and he served as governor for eight years afterwards. Boschwitz stayed in office until his 1990 defeat by Paul Wellstone and Durenberger until 1995, who had opted not to run for reelection after an ethics scandal resulted in his censure and continuing legal problems.

Minnesota has become a bit more of a competitive state on the national scale in recent years than the age of such Democratic giants as Humphrey, McCarthy, and Mondale but Republicans still have their work cut out for them before they can pull off another triumph like 1978.


Dornfield, S. (2016, July 18). Wendell Anderson: A shooting star who fell to earth. MinnPost.

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Humphrey’s Cancer is Called Terminal. (1977, August 19). The New York Times.

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