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The Battle for Minnesota: Remembering the 1998 Governor’s Race

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1998, Bill Clinton’s affair with young intern Monica Lewinsky was exposed in January. Clinton gets impeached by the House of Representatives. The Good Friday Agreement ends most of the violence between Ireland and Northern Ireland, ending a 30-year conflict. Google was founded in California. Hugo Chavez becomes Venezuelan President. The Governor race for the state of Minnesota is experiencing a rarity. 

The Democrat, Hubert “Skip” Humphrey III

Attorney General Hubert “Skip” Humphrey III, son of former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, wins a crowded field of Democrats looking to become Governor, defeating Ted Mondale, son of former Vice President Walter Mondale, and Mike Freeman, son of former Governor Orville Freeman. Skip, a traditional progressive, modeled by his father and FDR’s new deal program, advocates for expanding healthcare to all children in the state. Humphrey is most well known for his opposition to tobacco, winning a settlement of $6.1 billion from tobacco companies. 

At one point, Humphrey was the most popular Democrat in the state, which saw him win the Attorney General position four times. His closet race came during his first election in 1982, “only” winning by 24%. His largest victory margin came in 1986 when he won by 42%. However, Humphrey has struggled to advance further. Off his landslide victory, Democrats pegged him to challenge for the Republican-held U.S. Senate spot. Humphrey would lose to the incumbent by 16%, receiving the least amount of votes he has ever had in statewide elections to that point. Skip had bounced back from the loss, winning in 1990 and 1994 Attorney General races, gathering over 1 million votes in each election. 

The Republican, Norm Coleman

Norm Coleman defeated a sole individual to get to this general election. Bill Dahn, a retired mechanic, he would run for state office eight more times. Bill would lose all of them, most recently in 2022. Coleman became mayor of St Paul in 1993 as a Democrat. Norm would butt heads with the more liberal members of the Democratic party to the point of not being invited to official party events. This would lead Coleman to abandon the party, joining the Republicans. His claim to fame was bringing hockey back to Minnesota in 1997 after the North Stars moved south to Dallas in 1993. Coleman managed to win in the 1997 mayoral race. An impressive feat, as St Paul’s party breakdown, was 70/30 Democrat. His margin of victory was 18% over the Democrat challenger. 

Coleman was a liberal, anti-war Democrat through college. However, in 1998, Coleman was anti-gay marriage. An idea that the government did not need to award people for their choice of sexuality. All people should be treated equally under the law (which does not make any sense considering his stance on marriage.) Coleman did select a trans woman to be deputy mayor for St Paul. Another position that put him at odds with Democrats is his stance on abortion. A belief that abortion should be illegal. At this moment, he was a moderate Republican in the party. 

Reform?

Typically, this is where a governor election ends, but a third viable candidate is in this race. First, we have to go to a 1992 election. Bill Clinton is challenging George H.W. Bush for the Presidency. There is a third-party candidate in that election too. Ross Perot is a businessman running on a platform of reducing debt in the United States, direct democracy, and ending outsourcing which had taken many jobs from Americans. Perot resonated with Americans, leading polls in June, beating both Bush and Clinton. However, he would drop out because of declining poll numbers, particularly for his less detailed stances on a variety of issues. Perot re-entered the race after getting on every ballot in the United States. Perot would lose, but he would win 18% of the vote, helping Clinton to the Presidency over Bush—the best performance of a third party since 1912. Perot’s success launched his new party, the Reform Party. This party enters the 1998 Minnesota Governor’s race. 

The Reformist, Jesse Ventura

The Reform Party selected a mayor from Brooklyn Park, Jesse Ventura. Ventura was a former Navy Seal, professional wrestler, and actor. He had entered politics on the advice of a former teacher in 1990. Ventura overthrew a 25-year incumbent in Brooklyn Park to win the mayoral position. He described himself as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” Ventura ran on a libertarian brand, reducing state government, taxes, and classroom sizes. Socially liberal would be an understatement about Ventura. An advocate for LGBT rights, abortion rights, and medical marijuana, even advocating for a discussion on legalizing prostitution in the state. His campaign was the most interesting of the three. A third-party candidate with significantly less money led to innovation in Ventura’s campaign. His campaign focused on grassroots organization, internet campaigning, and public debates. 

As of late October 1998, Humphrey was leading over Coleman and Ventura, but support was wavering, down from a 10% lead in July over Coleman. Now, 1% separated Humphrey and Coleman, while Ventura sat 13% behind Humphrey. 

November 3rd, 1998

“Well, now it’s 1998, and the American dream lives on in Minnesota because we shocked the world!”- Jesse Ventura, during his victory speech on November 3rd. Ventura had defeated Humprey by 10% and Coleman by 2.7%. His victory came from people who did not typically vote, but those people wanted to vote for the non-politician, no PAC-funding candidate Jesse Ventura. Over 60% of Minnesotans turned out for the election, 400,000 more voters than in 1994’s Governor’s race. This would be Ventura’s only term as Governor, choosing not to run for a second term citing attacks from media on him personally instead of policy.

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