Another Outlier Campaign
by Tonya Hamilton
What would happen if a charismatic Republican businessman with no political experience runs for a major office against a politically-seasoned but unpopular Democrat and then quits right before the general election? In the alternative reality of today's presidential race, that question has been posed.
If this sounds too far-fetched, it's not. That's exactly what happened in Minnesota's 1990 gubernatorial race. I worked on staff for the incumbent governor's campaign and, upon reflection 26 years later, see strategic similarities to today's presidential election. The result of that state's race was not what you might expect and had surprising reverberations across the political landscape. This campaign, too, was unprecedented, unscripted, an outlier. Here's what happened.
Minnesota, 1990. Governor Rudy Perpich, 62 year-old former dentist who Newsweek Magazine dubbed ‘Governor Goofy' was serving a non-consecutive term in office and was running for re-election. Perpich was known for being an honest family man yet unpredictable and quirky, much to the embarrassment of the state's residents who lived by the sensible mantra of “Minnesota Nice.” As if to punctuate his eccentricity, Perpich announced his re-election intent with a 46-second speech delivered to reporters who drove four hours north of the Twin Cities for an important press event. He was gargantuan at 6'7” and was chided for dying his hair. He hailed from the Iron Range, the rural mining community of northern Minnesota, but was of Croatian descent. In fact, he started elementary school unable to speak English, and his ancestry became a strong part of his identity. During his term, he promoted the progressive idea that states need to partner with countries, even bringing Mikhail Gorbachev to Minnesota in a highly-publicized event. He ran under the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party.
Governor Perpich was “dogged by low approval ratings,” according to news accounts. However, he beat his closest competitor, 42 year-old Mike Hatch, in the September 11 primary that year 55% to 42%. A WCCO-Pioneer Press poll just three weeks prior had him projected to win 52% to 35%.
That same poll projected state auditor and Independent-Republican (I-R) party's Arne Carlson, 56 years old and relinquishing his job to run for governor, to crush someone with no political experience—45 year-old charismatic corporate vice president Jon Grunseth—39% to 21%. Carlson was not liked by mainstream party officials—including Grunseth—because of his more liberal views like a pro-choice stance on abortion (as opposed to both Grunseth and Perpich who were pro life). However, Grunseth managed an upset, sweeping Carlson in the primary 49% to 32%. Carlson's immediate political ambitions had stalled. He would soon be out of a job.
The senate race was that year, also. Two-term incumbent I-R Senator Rudy Boschwitz was up against an ultra-liberal college political science professor, 46 year-old DFLer Paul Wellstone. Wellstone was a thin, short man with a bald crown surrounded by curly brown hair, a crooked smile, and one left tooth which jutted out like a bluff over a river. He typically wore casual pants and short-sleeved button down shirts or sweaters, always looking as if he was campaigning between lectures. He was quite literally the little guy running against the habitually-business-suited 60 year-old lawyer and home improvement store founder Boschwitz. In front of a handful of people at the Minnesota State Fair, Wellstone gave impassioned rants replete with references to “average Minnesotans,” furrowing his brow in a state of perpetual consternation. He campaigned in a bright green school bus donned with bumper stickers in the windows and banners taped to the sides. Wellstone was behind in the polls, and political insiders said he didn't have a chance with his silly—if authentic—grassroots approach. Boschwitz was slated to spent $6 million to keep his seat which included a finely honed advertising campaign. Wellstone would only raise $1 million.
For a month after the primary, with a November 6 general election less than two short months away, these major races seemed to be on a contentious but normal course: debates, interviews, analyses, rallies, polls, political ads, op-eds, and general bad-mouthing of the other party's candidate. That normalcy wouldn't last long.
On Monday, October 15 an explosive headline hit the Star Tribune (the Minneapolis newspaper): “Allegations rock governor's race: 2 women claim improper behavior by Grunseth at '81 party; he denies it.” Then, in a second article also on the front page: “Grunseth blames Perpich; DFL ties do exist, but no ties to governor found.”
The story was a bombshell. The first paragraph of the main article read: “Two women have signed sworn affidavits alleging that Independent-Republican gubernatorial candidate Jon Grunseth encouraged four girls aged 13 to 16 to remove their bathing suits and join him for a nude swim at a 1981 pool party at his former residence in Hastings.”
A girl named Elizabeth Mulay, friends with Grunseth's stepdaughter Nina, had been at the party that night. It was an annual event, and Grunseth would later claim that as many as 150 people attended. A rock band played and left. Mulay alleged that at some point after most guests were gone and only a small group remained, she and three other girls, including Nina, had been in the swimming pool when Grunseth and two other adult males suggested skinny-dipping. She claimed that all three men, Nina and one other girlfriend removed their swimming suits and began diving into the pool.
“Jon Grunseth and a couple of his friends came out and tried to coax us into taking off our suits and all go skinny dipping,” Mulay said on Minnesota Public Radio. A naked and intoxicated Grunseth, she alleged, cornered her and tried to pull down her swimming suit strap with one hand, grabbing her breast with the other. She recalled diving under his arm, exiting the pool and going into the house.
When asked why she didn't come out with this allegation until three weeks before the election, she claimed she “buried it.” Only when he decided to run for governor nine years later did she consider going public. She'd signed an affidavit about the event. Two other women who were there that night corroborated her story. One of them, Liane Nelson, who also refused to remove her swimming suit, produced her own affidavit. Band members who had come back to the party remembered seeing skinny-dipping when they returned but couldn't confirm who was involved. At the time, Liane Nelson was 14 and Elizabeth Mulay was 13.
Grunseth immediately held a press conference at the capitol. News reporters mobbed the event and aired it live.
He said he didn't know what happened after he went to bed and categorically denied the charges. Grunseth said, “I am outraged by the fact that I am made to disprove a negative,” pointing out that allegations like this are normally settled with due process, in a court of law. When asked if he would take a lie detector test, he was noncommittal. According to Grunseth, “This particular story has been shopped [to the press] by senior officials in the DFL for many weeks.” He claimed he was given two days to respond to the allegations before they were printed in the Star Tribune.
“It has been disappointing for all of us in the Grunseth family because it started out as such a positive experience for all of us. My children have had an opportunity to…meet the president, meet the vice president. Rumors have been circulated and our life in general since the charges have been communicated to my eldest daughter [Nina] has been extremely difficult. I categorically deny the charges.”
He said that he had learned of the allegations on September 29 when Liane Nelson called Nina to tell her what was coming. Grunseth and his campaign manager said there was evidence of blackmail, that someone had shopped the story and said it would not be made public if Grunseth dropped out of the race. He threatened to ask for a full investigation. He blamed Perpich and his ties.
“Rudy Perpich was the driving force behind these allegations. Rudy Perpich and his campaign orchestrated this every step of the way. Rudy Perpich is the supreme liar and he will do anything to stay in office,” Grunseth vehemently stated.
Grunseth's strongly worded claim that Perpich drove the story was tempered with the admission that they had only circumstantial evidence to this effect. He pleaded with members of the public who had evidence against the Governor to come forward. He also said his campaign would “rain affidavits” of their own. They eventually produced 16 sworn affidavits from people who were at the party that night claiming that Grunseth was not skinny-dipping in the pool with minors. Grunseth eventually took and passed a polygraph test.
He closed his press conference with a final blame of the Governor, saying, “The Governor ought to take a pledge with me that he will abide by a code of conduct for the duration of this campaign and knock this crap off.”
Governor Perpich responded that he was not involved, stating that there was no way he could make up a story like this.
Grunseth's campaign had turned into a scandal. Minnesota Nice had just gotten Minnesota Ugly.
It didn't take long before people started having fun at Grunseth's expense. A Twin Cities radio station played a song about him written and performed by a local artist. It went something like:
(in breathy female voices) Ooh! Mr. Grunseth. Ooh! Mr. Grunseth. Ooh! Mr. Grunseth.
(in gravelly male voice) Everybody into the pool!… Now this is what I call a REPUBLICAN party!
The station played the song in heavy rotation, and I always seemed to hear it on my way to work. The election was so salacious that it had become a source of comedic entertainment but was simultaneously analyzed more seriously in every newspaper and local news report. The story was now being covered by the national news.
The media saturation was incredible. There was absolutely no other story in Minnesota except the Grunseth scandal. From broadcast to print media to discussions at work, in grocery store aisles and at every restaurant table, the state seemed to be talking only about the gubernatorial election and little else. The story's long shadow meant that political candidates, especially Republicans, were forced to answer questions about the gubernatorial race more often than about their own less exciting races, prompting blanket statements that they would defer those questions to the end of their event.
Not surprisingly, new polls showed that Perpich was the clear favorite over Grunseth even though their high negative ratings were comparable at 50%.
But the gubernatorial election wasn't the only one impacted by the scandal. Shortly after the Grunseth story broke Wellstone pulled to a dead heat with Boschwitz in the senate race, seen as a Republican backlash.
Arne Carlson saw an opening. He declared himself a write-in candidate one week later, just 15 days before the general election. Polls showed Perpich was the clear winner in a three-way match-up against Grunseth and Carlson. However, Carlson had a ten-point advantage over Perpich—the governor “dogged by low approval ratings”—in a two-way race. Enraged Republicans called for Carlson to step aside. After all, 14 of the 15 Republican Party Executive Committee members still supported Grunseth.
Although continuing to blame Perpich for planting the story in order to blackmail him out of the race, Grunseth was prepared to withdraw, with pressure from some in the party along with Boschwitz whose surefire senate bid was now in jeopardy. At a live news conference on October 25, Grunseth stepped to the microphone to allegedly do just that. However, backstage his ardent supporters had convinced him to double down and keep fighting. The crowd held their breath as he declared, “I came here tonight to withdraw from the race.” Then he tore his withdrawal speech in half to a cheering crowd of core backers who vowed to help him fight on. Minnesotans tuned in to hear the live drama unfold.
The next day, Perpich and his two Republican rivals held a surreal three-way debate on public television. Governor Perpich seemed to be the only clear choice as the Republican party melted down. University of Minnesota history professor Hyman Berman declared, “I think we can say the Republican Party is at least temporarily dead in this state.” He then projected exceptional doom by saying, “The historical record is clear that when a major party in this state undergoes this kind of internal conflict, the chances of its electoral victory in the next two or three elections are slim.”
Then, a mere nine days before the November 6 election, on October 28, the Star Tribune dropped an unbelievable second bombshell: an allegation that Grunseth had carried on a long-running affair with a woman named Tamara Taylor during and between his two marriages.
He admitted to the affair but explained that it ended long ago, saying, “I was very much a warm-blooded American male.” This reaction infuriated women's groups enraged by his callous boys-will-be-boys explanation. Then Taylor herself responded that his version was not quite accurate, that they had reconnected the prior year in a hotel room in Washington D.C.
Grunseth briefly disputed the claim but knew his campaign couldn't survive this second salvo, and it became a lethal blow. With only eight days left until the general election, Grunseth dropped out of the race without indicating his choice for a replacement, leaving no Republican on the Minnesota gubernatorial ballot except Carlson as a write-in. Governor Perpich was effectively the only major party candidate whose name would be printed on the ballot for the seat he currently held. With Republicans in freefall, political analysts called the election a done deal, a “cakewalk” for Perpich.
Republican Party leaders met in a panic. The I-R ballot was quickly if begrudgingly handed to Carlson by default because he came in second in the primary. However, in another Republican snag, Grunseth's running mate Sharon Clark refused to withdraw from the race, leaving in question her legal claim to do so. On October 30, the I-R party asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to decide the matter. Two days later, on Thursday November 1—a mere five days before Tuesday's election—the court announced their decision: candidates run as a team, so Grunseth's withdrawal meant his lieutenant governor choice was also out. Carlson and his original running mate would be the I-R candidates. There was no time for a Carlson/Perpich debate. There was barely enough time to print and distribute ballots to every polling station with the final candidates' names on them: Perpich/Johnson (DFL) versus Carlson/Dyrstad (I-R). (In an interesting side note, the lieutenant governor candidates for Perpich, Carlson and Grunseth were all women.)
Perpich polled well in the Iron Range and other rural areas of the state but not in its biggest population center, the Twin Cities. The question came down to voter turnout, and both sides were busy with get-out-the-vote calls. Although the scandal was an embarrassment, saturated media coverage meant voters were informed, engaged and opinionated. Would Minnesotans be disgusted and stay home or motivated and vote? Because this election was a political outlier with no comparative example to refer to, the answer was anybody's guess.
Although Carlson and Perpich were involved in one debate with Grunseth, the election was less centered on comparing the candidates' issues and policies than their character: an unpopular known politician versus a popular lesser known one. As the election results came in the night of November 6, it was clear this unpredictable outlier campaign had created unpredictable results, too.
Carlson beat Perpich 50% to 47%, a far closer spread than the ten points predicted in the polls, but an I-R victory that would have been unthinkable only a few days prior. The state's highly engaged voters were sending deep messages.
The primary had a 25% voter turnout, about the same as the prior gubernatorial primary. (This was not a presidential election year.) But the general election saw a 59% voter turnout, 27% higher than in 1986 or nearly 400,000 more voters in a state that only increased its population by 170,000 in that time.
The bulk of the additional voters came out for Carlson. The DFL candidate had an additional 46,000 voters versus the 1986 gubernatorial election, but the I-R candidate had nearly 290,000 more. Interestingly, in 1986, more than 11,000 people voted for “other” (non-DFL or I-R) candidates. In 1990, that number hit nearly 56,000 (including Grunseth who got close to 11,000 votes). Clearly, Minnesotans were engaged yet sick of the shenanigans, exhausted by the chaos and motivated to shake things up.
Perpich was seen as unapologetic, hot-tempered and quirky. His proposal to sell the governor's mansion, build a chopstick factory in the Iron Range or refurbish an 11th century Viennese castle and make it a University of Minnesota extension didn't sit well with people. He donated his $25,000 pay raise to help promote bocce ball. He attacked Grunseth personally by waving his divorce papers around to reporters, prompting calls that he should stick to the issues. Carlson became the only clean candidate in this chaotic race. Plus, Grunseth had been successful in sullying not only his own image but Perpich's, too.
All gubernatorial campaigns are historic but this was a true outlier, analyzed and regurgitated decades later. It shred the political playbook. The affable and moderate Carlson would go on to win a second term in office.
The senate and state auditor races were shaken up, too. Wellstone beat Boschwitz 50% to 48%. Boschwitz actually spent $7 million ($1 million more than planned) trying to keep his seat. This was a colossal defeat, as he was the only incumbent senator to lose that year—upset by one of the most liberal Democrats at that. Wellstone's campaign was also about character, authentic Minnesota Nice. Wellstone would beat him again in 1996 and be a senator for 11 years until, in 2002, when he, his wife, daughter and five others died in a plane crash while on their way to a funeral. Rudy Boschwitz would be active in Jewish causes, including under President George H.W. Bush.
Carlson's state auditor position would be filled by Democrat Mark Dayton of the Dayton/Hudson/Marshall Field's/Target dynasty. He would go on to become the state's 40th governor, a position he serves today.
After his defeat, Perpich founded the Perpich Center for Arts Education, the Minnesota World Trade Center, and the Center for Victims of Torture. This proved to be his enduring legacy. He died five years later at the age of 67.
Arne Carlson would remain politically active and fiercely independent into retirement, teaming with Walter Mondale to help solve a state fiscal crisis and endorsing Barack Obama in 2008. Jon Grunseth now owns a cherry-growing operation overseas.
There are certainly differences between this political anomaly and today's presidential election: demographics, voter issues, open racial tension, economic concerns, terrorism, even gender. Plus, Grunseth's personal scandal is dwarfed by the Republican party's institutional one. To compare the two, one needs more than an equation but a complex algorithm.
But it's difficult not to see important similarities: unscripted scandals, calls for the Republican candidate to step down, the entertainment factor, popularity numbers, experience levels, emerging third party candidates, saturated media coverage, rapid pace of newsworthy events, high voter engagement, and predicted impact on other races in the final march toward the general election.
Tonya Hamilton, MBA, is a strategic marketing consultant, community leader and writer who spent ten years in the Twin Cities. For her first job out of college, she was hired as a full-time staff member on the Perpich/Johnson Volunteer Committee.
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