Sean Scallon: Turning Minnesota a Deeper Shade of Red (Republican Red, That Is)

Roundup: Talking About History

[Sean Scallon is a freelance writer living in Arkansaw, Wisconsin.]

In the Midwest it is still considered bad form to talk politics or religion in polite company. The region’s religious, ethnic, and political diversity makes it sensible to keep one’s views a private matter—or at least between family and good friends—lest one start a quarrel with the neighbors. But since the mid-1970s Michele Bachmann and others like her have been smashing these polite traditions to pieces. She cannot separate religion and politics in her worldview: doing so would leave her faith incomplete and her life along with it. There is no “wall of separation” or compartmentalization. Bachmann would not be who she is without her faith driving her politics—and there are many others who feel the same way....

Conservative Republicans in Minnesota after 1938 were a minority of a minority. In the elections of that year Harold Stassen won the first of three terms as governor, ushering in the dominance of the internationalist, cosmopolitan, progressive, and ultimately “moderate” wing of the Republican Party. His victory foreshadowed the presidential candidacies of Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower, and Nelson Rockefeller. Indeed, Stassen was an enthusiastic supporter of Willkie in 1940 before running for president himself 11 times between 1944 and 2000. For most of the postwar era, there were at least as many social conservatives in the rival Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. An indication of the Stassen wing’s control over the GOP was the change of the state party’s name to Independent Republicans during the Watergate scandal. For 40 years, conservatives in the Minnesota Republican Party included old Robert Taft supporters like August Andersen, China Lobby stalwarts like Walter Judd, Goldwater-movement types like Tom Hagedorn and Arlan Stangeland, and such Reaganites as Vin Weber. But a congressman here and there could not influence the party on the state level, where it remained moderate.

The landscape began to change in the 1980s, largely due to signature Bachmann concerns like religion and abortion. In 1984 election, Minnesota Concerned Citizens for Life coordinated their campaign with the state’s Republicans, producing a Republican majority in the state House of Representatives for the first time since the early 20th century and nearly carrying Walter Mondale’s home state for Reagan. Within six years, social conservatives had taken control of the state party machinery, nominating candidates for governor like Jon Grunseth (whose 1990 campaign was derailed by a sex scandal) and Allen Quist (who won the party’s endorsement over sitting Republican governor Arne Carlson in 1994). Like Bachmann, these GOP voters were in many cases ex-Democrats dismayed by the party’s left turn on social issues or evangelicals jolted out of their apathy by figures like Francis Schaeffer.

Midwesterners seeking the certainty and stability of faith, as it seems Bachmann was in the 1970s, continued their rise in the 1980s. The economic tumult of the late ’70s and early ’80s hit the region hard. Factories shut down, mines closed, farmers went bankrupt, and businesses that supported the local economy went belly up. The countryside was depopulated through economic and cultural shifts. Social maladies increased—drugs and an unheard of spike in the teen-pregnancy rate, for example. Religion, particularly the evangelical variety, became the catch basin for all the Iowans, Kansans, Ohioans, Missourians, and Michiganders trying to find means to cope with these tough times. But soon the prosperity arrived in the suburbs around Midwestern metro areas like the Twin Cities, creating new bedroom communities with neighbors looking to reach out to others within the cul-de-sacs and subdivisions. That’s how Tim Pawlenty, who grew up in a Croatian Catholic household in the industrial suburb of South St. Paul, became a member of an evangelical megachurch in the more upscale suburb of Eagan and subsequently entered public life. With the rise of the Christian Coalition in the late ’80s and early ’90s, new activists marched into the millennium.

Minnesota was just one battleground of a broader intra-party struggle that transformed Republican politics across the Midwest. In 1988, Pat Robertson’s presidential campaign mobilized Christians in Michigan and Iowa, making the evangelical vote an important constituency in the Hawkeye State, particularly in its heavily Protestant west. The Wichita Summer abortion protests and civil disobedience of 1991 helped create a powerful evangelical wing in the formerly progressive Kansas Republican Party, as detailed in Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter With Kansas, and laid the groundwork for Governor Sam Brownback’s career. Voters thought to be on the far right in the late ’80s and early ’90s became the party’s mainstream, and indeed its leadership after 2000, the year Bachmann first held office....

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