The GOP can and will ignore Arne Carlson


By Jeff Fecke, 10/23/08 • Arne’s endorsement is better than a sharp stick in the eye.

Steve Benen, among others, is excited by the news that former Gov. Arne Carlson, R-Minn., has endorsed Barack Obama. And sure, Arne’s endorsement is better than a sharp stick in the eye. But when Benen says Carlson’s endorsement is “tougher to ignore” than some other GOPers…well, no, not really, if you’re a Republican.

Arne Carlson was never a darling of the right. He was part of the old guard, ’70s “Independent-Republican” era of the GOP, not the new wave, Gov. Timmy/Rep. Pro-American era. Carlson was fiscally pragmatic, and not a great friend of the teacher’s unions, but he was also pro-choice, tolerant of homosexuality, and much more a pragmatist than an ideologue. Philosophically, he was much closer to Jesse Ventura than Tim Pawlenty, and the GOP knew it, which is why, in 1990, they denied him the endorsement and the primary win for governor.

Arne’s 1990 victory was, like all gubernatorial races in Minnesota over the past quarter-century, an accident of history. The GOP endorsed Jon Grunseth, a hardcore righty who was acceptably anti-gay and anti-choice, and while Carlson ran against Grunseth in the primary, Grunseth won. Unfortunately, Grunseth had some skeletons in the closet, like the time he went skinny-dipping with his adopted teenage daughter and her friends. Carlson had been readying a write-in challenge to Grunseth and then-Gov. Rudy Perpich, DFL-Minn., who was himself anti-choice and who had been erratic enough to earn the sobriquet “Governor Goofy.” But with the implosion of the Grunseth campaign, Carlson, as the runner-up in the primary, found himself on the ballot. Arguably the more liberal candidate in 1990, Carlson edged Perpich in what would have been the most bizarre gubernatorial election in state history if not for 1962, 1998, 2002, and of course, 1994, the year Carlson won re-election.

One might think by ‘94 that the GOP would let bygones be bygones; sure, Arne had been a sort of random win in 1990, but he was popular, and the DFL standard-bearer, the earnest and charisma-challenged John Marty, was no threat to Carlson. So the GOP did the obvious thing: they denied Carlson their endorsement again, instead turning to insane Palin-wing former Rep. Allen Quist, who ran ads comparing Arne Carlson to then-President Bill Clinton. Quist and the “Quistians” ultimately lost to Carlson in the primary, but won the larger war for the soul of the Minnesota GOP. In 1998, when Norm Coleman ran for governor, he’d sell his soul to Allen Quist for the endorsement of the Christian Right, a move that opened the door for Jesse Ventura. By 2002, Tim Pawlenty was the more moderate GOP candidate seeking endorsement. And of course, the GOP loves Michele Bachmann.

Arne Carlson was not welcome in the Minnesota GOP before this announcement, and it won’t change anything for the GOPers now. They’ve thrown out the pragmatic, thoughtful conservatives like Carlson, in favor of rabble-rousers. For moderates in this state, independents, still-sane Republicans, Carlson’s endorsement will carry weight — he’s still respected by people across the political spectrum, from the moderate right to the progressive left. But for the hardcore Republicans, this will just underline that they were right to try to exorcise Arne in ‘94. He’s not one of them. That’s why I supported him twice for Governor, and why I respect him to this day.