The trifecta of states holding presidential nominating contests today—Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri—have never before been considered crucial in the presidential primary process. While all three are considered swing states and receive considerable attention during the general election, they are invariably afterthoughts in primaries, until now. While political junkies have become familiar with the color and quirks of politics in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, the local peculiarities of other states have been neglected. But, in honor of these three states’ moment in the spotlight, here are five fascinating facts apiece that make them each politically unique.
Growing Hispanic Population
While Colorado may still be the state of Tim Tebow and John Denver in the popular imagination, it has one of the most rapidly growing Hispanic populations in the country. In fact, the Rocky Mountain State’s Hispanic population has shot up by 41 percent over the past 10 years, and Hispanics now make up more than one in five Colorado residents. This demographic change has had major political effects in the state, and Colorado is now starting to lean more Democratic. While the Latino vote has long been considered a major bloc in Florida and the states along the U.S.-Mexico border, its growth in Colorado is changing the dynamic there. In the past decade the state has elected a Hispanic congressman and senator, brothers John and Ken Salazar. (However, neither is still in Congress; John lost his bid for reelection in 2010, and Ken is now the secretary of the interior.) It has become a state where Hispanic voters are a force to be reckoned with.
The Colorado Blueprint
In the past eight years, Colorado has experienced a concerted effort by left-leaning millionaires to fund local races. This has been led by Tim Gill, a tech mogul and gay-rights activist, who started funneling money to Democratic candidates for the state House. This led to his forming a group with three other moguls (including Jared Polis, now a congressman from Boulder) called the Gang of Four, which bankrolled the creation of a Democratic machine in Colorado. The result is this once solidly red state is now highly competitive, if not left-leaning, and managed to weather the Republican wave of 2010.
Tea Party’s Statewide Failure
However, there was one other reason for the failure of Republicans to win statewide elections for U.S. Senate and the governorship in 2010. They nominated bad candidates. In both primaries, the Tea Party candidate defeated the candidate of the Republican establishment; in each election, that meant the Republican nominee was “not ready for primetime.” The Senate candidate, Ken Buck, received heavy criticism for refusing to prosecute a rape case in which even the accused admitted liability. Buck’s reasoning was that “a jury could very well conclude that this is a case of buyer’s remorse.” He was still much better than his counterpart on the GOP ticket, gubernatorial nominee Dan Maes, who garnered a mere 11 percent of the vote. Former Republican congressman Tom Tancredo entered the race as a Constitution Party candidate after Maes committed a series of embarrassing missteps, including pretending to be an undercover policeman in Kansas. As a result, Maes’s performance was so woeful that it almost cost the GOP major-party status in Colorado.
Colorado politics was not new to scandal. Former senator Gary Hart had his 1988 presidential campaign end in humiliating fashion when he challenged reporters to follow him in order to rebut rumors of infidelity. Hart had run a surprisingly strong campaign in 1984 and was considered a favorite in 1988. However, his campaign ended quickly when he was caught redhanded. Pictures emerged of him vacationing with a girlfriend, Donna Rice, in the Bahamas, on a boat appropriately called the Monkey Business. It ended Hart’s political career. However, he has stayed busy since, perhaps best known for writing a pseudonymous novel based on the premise that not only was Che Guevara alive, but he had become a Jeffersonian Democrat intent on building a republic in Cuba. It was not a success.
The most notable candidate in Colorado political history did not come from either of the two parties and was not elected to office. But his campaign captured the imagination of generations of Americans. Author Hunter S. Thompson unsuccessfully ran for sheriff of Pitkin County in 1971 as the candidate of the Freak Power Party. Thompson’s platform pledged to rename Aspen “Fat City” and to rip up the asphalt from streets and let grass grow there instead. As his contribution to public safety, Thompson, famous for his penchant for controlled substances, promised not to use mescaline while on duty. Unsurprisingly, he lost, but the author used his experience as a candidate to help fuel his future exploits in “gonzo journalism,” including his coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.
Jewish Senate Seat
For decades, the U.S. Supreme Court had what was known as its “Jewish seat.” While this term has long become obsolete, Minnesota seems to have adopted a “Jewish seat” in the Senate. Although Jews make up less than 1 percent of the state’s population, since 1978 every person elected to one of the state’s seats in the U.S. Senate has been Jewish. This has included two Republicans, Rudy Boschwitz and Norm Coleman, and two Democrats, Paul Wellstone and Al Franken. In fact, in his contested Senate race against Coleman, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Franken’s line was that he was “the only New York Jew running who grew up in Minnesota.” However, the candidates’ shared religion likely had very little to do with the outcome.
Walter Mondale and His Clean Sweep
The only gentile to even be a major-party nominee for Minnesota’s Jewish seat since 1990 was Walter Mondale. The former vice president replaced Paul Wellstone on the ballot as the Democratic Senate nominee after Wellstone’s tragic death in a plane crash on the eve of the 2002 election. Mondale eventually lost to Norm Coleman (in part due to a raucous and partisan memorial service held to commemorate Wellstone). This gave Mondale a rare booby prize. He became the only politician from one of the two major parties to lose a general election in all 50 states. He had lost 49 states to Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election, winning only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. His defeat in the Senate race meant he had finally lost a statewide election in Minnesota, too.
The razor-tight Senate race between Franken and Coleman in 2008 came down to a court battle between the two in which every absentee ballot was pored over by a special canvassing board. Perhaps the most famous ballot was one that was marked twice, once for Franken and once for a write-in candidate, “Lizard People.” This ballot gained infamy, both for the absurd nature of a vote being cast for Lizard People and for the intense legal fight over whether it should be counted for Franken or disallowed as a double vote for the same office. Eventually, although the ballot was not counted, Franken pulled it out, but he didn’t take his seat until seven months after the congressional session had started.
Gov. Jesse “The Body” Ventura
Minnesotans have a reputation for being sober-minded, pragmatic Midwesterners. However, it should not be forgotten that, less than 15 years ago, they elected a professional wrestler to run the state. Jesse Ventura triumphed narrowly in a three-way race in 1998 as the candidate of the Reform Party (now called the Independence Party in the state). Ventura did have more qualifications for elected office than simply wearing a feathered boa while grappling in the wrestling ring. He had served one term as mayor of Brooklyn Park, a Minneapolis suburb. But he served only one embattled term in the statehouse, taking criticism from members of both parties before deciding not to run for reelection.
Minnesota does not have a Democratic Party. This is not to say that there are no liberals in the state of Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone, but their party goes by a different name. In Minnesota, they are members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, or DFL for short. This nomenclature is the result of a merger between the Democratic Party and the Farmer-Labor Party, a progressive agrarian party of the 1920s and '30s. Although the Farmer-Labor Party achieved great success in the state, electing a number of statewide candidates, including the rabble-rousing Gov. Floyd Olsen, the party eventually merged with the Democrats after accepting that while Minnesota may have space for a thousand lakes, there wasn’t room for two left-of-center political parties.
Since 1904, Missouri has gone for the winning presidential candidate in almost every election. The only exceptions have been in 1956, when the Missourians backed Adlai Stevenson, and in the last election, when the state went for John McCain by fewer than 4,000 votes. Although Missouri has been growing more Republican, as the population of the Democratic stronghold of St. Louis has declined and the population has surged in strongly Republican exurbs, it is still a swing state, electing a Democratic governor in 2008. Although political trend spotters may not “need a weatherman to know which way the political winds blow,” Missouri is still helpful.
In 1972, George McGovern selected Thomas Eagleton, a Democratic senator from Missouri, as his vice-presidential nominee. However, almost immediately after Eagleton accepted a spot on the ticket, it was revealed that he had been repeatedly hospitalized for depression and treated with shock therapy. While McGovern immediately volunteered that he was “1,000 percent for Eagleton,” after several days he was forced to drop him from the ticket. It was a decision that helped ruin McGovern’s nonpolitical image and set him for crushing defeat on Election Day. However, this marked the first moment that mental illness was ever seriously addressed in American politics. Although Eagleton was replaced as the vice-presidential nominee, he stayed in the Senate for more than a decade and was on the forefront of shattering the taboos around mental illness in politics.
Peter Kinder and the Penthouse Pet
Last year, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder was planning his run for governor. Kinder, a conservative Republican, was considered a favorite to take the GOP nomination. Then a photo came out showing him with Tammy Chapman, a former Penthouse Pet. The picture was taken at the St. Louis bar where Chapman then worked, called Verlin’s, which advertised its “pantless parties.” Although Kinder claimed that he had only stopped in the bar because “I felt the urge to use the bathroom and I was in the neighborhood,” it turned out he had a longtime acquaintance with Chapman. In the early '90s, he had been a frequent customer of hers at a strip club and spent up to $200 a visit—while visiting twice a week. However, he eventually became a little too into Chapman, who told him not to come back. But this rejection didn’t deter him; when he saw Chapman at Verlin’s, after not seeing her for a decade, he immediately offered to let her move into his apartment—a residence for which the rent was paid with campaign funds. She declined, as did Kinder’s chances of winning the GOP gubernatorial nod. Several months later he dropped out.
Carnahan Plane Crash
Like Minnesota, the Show-Me State has experienced a tragic plane crash on the eve of an election. In 2000, during a razor-tight Senate race against incumbent John Ashcroft, Gov. Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash weeks before the election. It was too late to take his name off the ballot, and instead it was allowed to be understood that if he was elected, his widow, Jean, would take his place in Washington. That was exactly what happened on Election Day, when Carnahan won by almost 50,000 votes despite his death. However, Jean would serve only two years in the Senate and would go on to lose the special election for the remainder of her husband’s term in 2002.
John Ashcroft, “The Crisco Kid”
The man the dead Carnahan defeated, John Ashcroft, was also unique. A devout Pentecostal who served as attorney general under George W. Bush, Ashcroft demonstrated his religious faith by having himself anointed before taking government office, like kings from the Bible. However, Ashcroft’s method of anointing himself differed in some respects from that of King David. The most glaring difference is that Crisco, rather than a horn of oil wielded by the Prophet Samuel, was used in the ceremony. However, this did make Ashcroft’s sideline, writing and singing patriotic songs, far less quirky in comparison.
- Paul Wellstone
- Walter Mondale