The Quistian right returns

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One of the things I missed covering in the last couple of days was the rant by former State Rep. Allen Quist, R-St. Peter, talking about how radical Democrats are a bigger threat to democracy than terrorism. The Republican, who is challenging Rep. Tim Walz, R-Minn., said, “Our country is being destroyed. Every generation has had to fight the fight for freedom… Terrorism? Yes. That’s not the big battle. The big battle is in D.C. with the radicals. They aren’t liberals. They are radicals. Obama, Pelosi, Walz: They’re not liberals, they’re radicals. They are destroying our country.”

Now, it’s easy to imagine that Quist is some lone nut fringe candidate waging a Quixotic challenge to Walz, just saying something to get himself noticed. But that’s not the case. Oh, Quist is a fringe radical. But he’s also one of the most important figures in Minnesota political history.

It was Quist’s 1994 primary challenge to then-Gov. Arne Carlson, R-Minn., that arguably changed once and for all the character of the Minnesota Republican Party. Prior to 1990, the GOP was pretty moderate, defined by progressive voices like Harold Stassen’s, and pragmatic voices like Al Quie’s. Arne Carlson, the bland State Auditor, was of a piece with this legacy. Oh, Carlson was generally opposed to tax hikes, but he wasn’t fanatical about it; he was kind of opposed to raising spending, except when it needed to be raised. And he was pro-choice and pro-gay rights, which wasn’t that unusual; there were plenty of pro-choice Minnesota Republicans, and plenty of pro-life Minnesota DFLers.

1990 was the first shot that the modern Minnesota Republicans had at changing their party, with the nomination and primary victory of Jon Grunseth over Carlson. But Grunseth turned out to have a lot of skeletons in his closet, most notable among them the time he invited his adopted teenage daughter and her friends to go skinny-dipping in his pool. I am not making this up. And so Grunseth had been bounced off the ticket, and Carlson, the primary runner-up, took his place, ultimately defeating DFL incumbent Gov. Rudy Perpich.

This was a good result for the Republicans electorally, but a bad one from the standpoint of conservatives trying to remake the party in a Bircherite image. Enter former State Rep. Allen Quist, who took over as the standard-bearer for the right wing of the Minnesota GOP. Quist challenged Carlson for the endorsement in 1994, and won it; he lost to Carlson in the later primary, but his followers had managed to seize control of the party. Four years later, when the moderate St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman ran for Governor, he had to kiss Quist’s ring to get him to drop out of the race, and furthermore, had to move his political stances on social issues dramatically rightward in order to secure Quist’s support. By 2002, Tim Pawlenty was gaining the gubernatorial nomination as the more moderate candidate. Quist served as the catalyst for a shift that moved the Minnesota GOP dramatically rightward in just four cycles.

Quist’s influence did not end there. His wife, Julie, has long been active in GOP politics, and currently serves as District Director for Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. And both have been considered leading lights of the Minnesota GOP for well over a decade. Both have kept their hands in the game. And both have been a welcome part of the Minnesota GOP establishment.

So when Allen Quist states that Democrats are more dangerous than terrorists, it isn’t some loony former state legislator saying it. It’s the man who shepherded the Minnesota GOP into tea-party land. It’s the spiritual father of the modern Minnesota Republican Party. And, I misdoubt, it’s not just Quist’s opinion; it’s the party’s opinion.