A big week in the land of political also-rans

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Virginia and Ohio may be the “cradles of presidents.” But Minnesota last week burnished its longstanding claim to being the “birthplace of also-rans.”

What’s true for the star of the north’s sports teams is still more true for its politicians.

Eight U.S. chief executives were born in Virginia; seven hailed from the Buckeye State. But no less than 20 unsuccessful presidential campaigns had been launched by Minnesota office seekers prior to the 2024 sweepstakes.

What brings all this up, of course, are last week’s big league political appearances by Rep. Tom Emmer and Rep. Dean Phillips, of Minnesota’s Sixth and Third Congressional Districts, respectively.

On Tuesday, Emmer became the majority GOP caucus nominee for speaker of the U.S. House — for about 15 minutes, until jettisoned by a backlash from the ultra-populist Republican faction that had paralyzed that body for weeks, and from their lord and master Donald Trump.

Throughout his career — in the Minnesota Legislature, as a narrowly beaten gubernatorial candidate, and in Congress — Emmer has alternately played rabble-rouser and conciliator with a certain panache. But he took a pratfall trying to straddle the current chasm between the Republican Party’s establishment and anarchist wings. (The new speaker instead is somebody named Mike Johnson. Everybody likes somebody named Mike Johnson.)

Meanwhile, on Friday, Phillips announced his candidacy to challenge President Joe Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination. He’d been dangling the possibility for months, like a stripper dangling an undergarment, without arousing much unruly passion or suspense. Now he has officially launched what is at least the 21st Minnesotan campaign for the White House, efforts that have ranged from the momentous to the preposterous. Only time will tell where Phillips’ foray will fall on that spectrum.

The state’s presidential aspirations began with John A. Johnson in 1908. The state’s only Democratic governor between the Civil War and World War I, Johnson was popular and progressive. Unable to wrest a third Democratic nomination away from the crusading loser William Jennings Bryan, Johnson died suddenly at 48 a year later.

Next — and nine times in all before he was done — came Harold Stassen. Minnesota’s accomplished “boy wonder” governor elected in 1938, Stassen was a real contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 1948 and 1952, later an increasingly ridiculed perennial.

In 1960, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, probably the state’s most consequential politician, made his first bid for the White House. As vice president in 1968 he won the Democratic nomination and lost a close election to Richard Nixon. He failed in a third try for the nomination in 1972.

Sen. Eugene McCarthy battled Humphrey for the nomination in 1968, having famously driven President Lyndon Johnson from the race earlier. He ran again, with more charm than impact, in 1972 and 1976.

After Walter Mondale‘s landslide loss to Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Stassen’s last try in 1992, Minnesota went a two decades without a presidential seeker. But in 2012 it produced two Republican dreamers — former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann. Neither could compete with the charismatic glamour of Mitt Romney.

In 2020, Sen. Amy Klobuchar sought the Democratic nomination and played a role in throwing centrist party support behind Biden.

It’s curious that it is Phillips, a self-styled “radical pragmatist” and “problem solver” determined to inspire a “new era of collaboration” who is leading an insurgency, however moderate a threat it represents, against a president who peddles largely the same sales pitch. But Phillips (like Biden) is a moderate Democrat in the same sense Emmer is a moderate Republican. They are less extreme than some in their parties.

While the GOP is tearing itself apart in Washington, the Democrats’ fault lines are becoming most visible at local levels. In Minneapolis, an awkward alliance between the Democratic Socialists of America and the city DFL is inspiring rebellion within the urban machine and estrangement from the state party.

Phillips says he’s worried Democrats are underestimating the danger that voters’ uneasiness over Biden’s age and frailty will cool support just enough to make Trump’s re-election possible. Could be — and in all this Phillips may be sincere and selfless. Yet the historical record reveals few examples when an incumbent party’s grip on the White House was strengthened by an internal challenge to a president’s re-nomination (think the GOP in 1992 and 1912, the Democrats in 1980 and 1968).

It may just be that politicians, in Minnesota as elsewhere, find it hard to resist opportunities to rise in prominence, however much of a long shot they may be.

Back in 1983, an insightful if indelicate writer for the New York Times Magazine explained how then-front running presidential hopeful Walter Mondale was not really “as boring as his coverage makes him seem.” It was just that Mondale embodied Minnesota culture’s “Scandinavian emphasis on privacy, self discipline and emotional containment,” its “restraint against feeling in general” — which made it “the most intense outpost of personal reticence left in modern America.”

If “intense reticence” really is a thing in Minnesota (or anywhere else), it’s apparently not the same thing as bashfulness. Not to judge by how often Minnesota vote-getters keep deciding they’re destined for national glory.

D.J. Tice is at [email protected].

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