The Brown-Coakley Race, 1978 Version

Some analysts are wondering about historical analogies to what seems to have happened in the Massachusetts special election. 

My mind immediately went back to the first major race in which I served as a volunteer. In 1978, a Minnesota Republican who had been David who? on Labor Day won the special election for the remaining four years of the late Hubert Humphrey's Senate term with 62% of the vote. Many of the elements helping Brown today also helped David Durenberger's upset victory in 1978. 

First, in '78, the nation was in the economic doldrums. The Democrats also controlled all three branches of government, with large minorities in the House and Senate, and President Carter was well on his way to alienating voters who had seem him as a refreshing new face in 1976.

Second, the seat in question was open because of the death of someone who had dominated the political landscape in his state for decades. Walter Mondale was nominated as Jimmy Carter's vice president in 1976 largely because he was seen as Humphrey's protégé. But in 1978, Minnesota voters had grown tired of the Democrats' attempts to stack the electoral landscape in their favor. In 1977, Democrat Governor Wendell "Wendy" Anderson appointed himself to the remaining two years in Vice President Mondale's Senate term, elevating an idiosyncratic dentist-turned-politician from the Iron Range named Rudy Perpich to governor. Then, when Humphrey died in January 1978, Perpich appointed Humphrey's widow Muriel to serve in the interim. Indeed, as soon as I heard about Massachusetts' Democrats changing the rules for senatorial appointments when Romney was Governor in 2005, and then changing them again in 2009, I thought about the 1978 Minnesota voter revolt. 

Third, like Coakley, the Democrat who won the primary to replace Humphrey was an insider with high name-recognition but plenty of baggage, along with a leaden campaign style. Bob Short had been the money man for many Democrat candidates as well as a member of the Democrat National Committee. But while Coakley has turned off some Massachusetts voters with her ignorance about sports, ridiculing Scott Brown for campaigning outside of Fenway Park, and even calling Curt Shilling a Yankee fan, Short's problem was that he knew sports all too well! In the late 1950s, he bought the Minneapolis Lakers, only to move them to Los Angeles, where he later sold them to a Canadian. In the 1970s, Short was also infamous for owning the inept Washington Senators, which he ended up moving to Texas before also unloading that team. Short had beaten a more liberal candidate in the Democrat primary, held in mid-September, largely on the basis of turnout in the heavily unionized Iron Range. Durenberger actually ran to his left on abortion, but the race wasn't really about that. It was about whom the voters trusted with the future. Minnesota voters were reluctant to trust someone who had sold the home team for a fast buck. Among die-hard sports fans, that is almost as heinous as allowing an innocent man to stay in jail for political gain.

As the Democrat candidate, Short was very much the frontrunner after the September primary. That was largely because voters were not focused on the availability of an alternative. During October, they woke up to that alternative. David Durenberger was a full generation younger than Short, far more personable, and a very energetic campaigner who took little for granted. I was working Republican phone banks in the last week before the election when Short's campaign went into a complete tailspin. When we stopped calling at around 9pm, we'd spend the next couple of hours stuffing envelopes to mail to those we had identified as supporters and leaners. As the election grew closer, the number of volunteers greatly increased. A lot of Democrats I called that week told me they were voting for Durenberger -- and they did.

In fact, November 1978 was a total disaster for Minnesota Democrats. Wendell Anderson, running for a full term on his own, lost to Republican Rudy Boschwitz. Rudy Perpich lost the governor's mansion to Republican Congressman Al Quie, and Democrats lost most of the remaining constitutional offices as well as control of the legislature. But Durenberger was by far the top vote-getter overall. 

I recall very little being written about this upset in the national press at the time, but it turned out to be a precursor of the 1980 election. Not only was Carter repudiated by Reagan, but Republicans also took control of the Senate. This effort was no doubt assisted by the fact that Durenberger's surprise win to take the Senate seats once held by Humphrey made it easier to recruit quality challengers for 1980.
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