03.25.11

Minnesota's Bachmannization

As Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty flirt with 2012 presidential runs, their home state's GOP is increasingly radicalized. John Avlon on how the swing state became wingnut territory.

Minnesota is a swing state, and its pendulum has swung heavily—from the liberal era of Humphrey and Mondale, past center-right figures like Norm Coleman, and right on to Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann, now both exploring runs for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012.

“An embarrassment of riches for Minnesota,” is how Republican State Party Chairman Tony Sutton describes this prospect.

But plain embarrassment is likely to become the dominant emotion when the rightward gallop of the Minnesota GOP starts to come under national scrutiny.

The Minnesota Republican Party has undergone a “Bachmannization” in recent years, lurching to the right on social issues, with the prerequisite purging of centrists and elevation of ideological absolutists.

In recent weeks, the Republican-controlled state legislature has clashed with liberal Democratic Governor Mark Dayton. Among their headline grabbing and eyebrow-raising legislative efforts have included trying to ban all abortions in the state after 20 weeks and forbidding anyone on public assistance from withdrawing more than $20 cash per month.

The man Dayton narrowly defeated in an overwhelmingly Republican election year was conservative-populist-turned-lobbyist Tom Emmer, who backed a “Tenther” bill that would require a two-thirds state legislative vote to ratify any federal legislation and supported a state constitutional ban on gay marriage.

The GOP's atmosphere is starkly inconsistent with the state’s justified reputation for “Minnesota Nice.”

Emmer got into some trouble when it was found that he appeared with a local “heavy metal ministry”—after it became known that its pastor said it was “moral” to execute homosexuals. (More recently, the Minnesota Independent has been buzzing with news that Bachmann sat down with local right-wing radio show host Bryan Fischer days after he declared that Muslim-Americans “have no fundamental first amendment claims.)

The point is that these are not isolated incidents, but indicative of an intra-party atmosphere that is starkly inconsistent with the state’s justified reputation for “Minnesota Nice.” This is, after all, the state that gave us Bob Dylan, Garrison Keillor and the Coen brothers.

For example, the 2010 GOP Secretary of State nominee, Dan Severson, recently said, “Quite often you hear people say, ‘What about separation of church and state?’ There is no such thing…I mean it just does not exist, and it does not exist in America for a purpose, because we are a Christian nation.”

Two-time GOP gubernatorial candidate and former state legislator Allen Quist made headlines during his 2010 run for congress when he stated, “Our country is being destroyed. Every generation has had to fight the fight for freedom… Terrorism? Yes. That’s not the big battle,” he said. “The big battle is in D.C. with the radicals. They aren’t liberals. They are radicals. Obama, Pelosi, [Democratic U.S. Congressman Tim] Walz: They’re not liberals, they’re radicals. They are destroying our country.” Liberals worse than terrorists? That’s the full Wingnut.

Likewise, conservative state senate-candidate Mike Parry was caught scrubbing his Twitter-feed in 2009, trying to erase these sort of patriotic statements: “read the exclusive on Mr O in Newsweek. He is a Power Hungry Arrogant Black Man.” Classy.

The rightward shift of the Minnesota Republican Party provoked one respected former party member to mount an independent campaign for Governor in 2010. Following the model of independent Governor Jesse Ventura, Tom Horner succeeded in gaining the endorsement of 18-high profile Minnesota Republicans, including two former governors and a U.S. senator. In response, GOP chair Sutton said, "There's a special place in hell for these Quislings,” referring to a notorious WWII Norwegian Nazi-supporting traitor—a particularly pungent attack in this Scandinavian-settled region.

"The party itself has been captured by social conservatives who have pushed the party further to the right,” says Horner, arguing that the shift doesn’t reflect the rank and file or the state’s political instincts. “This is a party that has become more and more narrow in its representation, and they need a polarized environment where fear becomes the driving factor.”

After the election, Sutton and the state GOP followed through on the impulse behind the “Quisling” remark by formally purging Horner and his 18-high profile Republican supporters (but pointedly allowed Horner-supporting fundraisers to remain in the party).

Among the excommunicated is the former two-term Republican Governor Arne Carlson. “The Republican Party—both nationally and in Minnesota—has drifted away from balancing the budget to enlarge the role of social issues,” Carlson said in a phone call, pointing out that Pawlenty left his successor a $6 billion deficit. “The last Republican president to balance the budget was Dwight Eisenhower—that’s a pretty long dry spell.”

“They control the nominating process—and every year they add a new ingredient to the litmus test,” Carlson continued. “They broaden the social agenda—and whenever anyone questions the direction they are always called a ‘traitor.’ That’s what every dictator and despot in history has always said about the center—‘you’re a traitor.’…They’ve forgotten the French Revolution. That guillotine is coming next for them.”

That cycle of incitement is sure to be an issue in the upcoming presidential campaign—and Pawlenty and Bachmann are going to have to answer for the increasing extremism of their home-state Republican Party.

John Avlon's most recent book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.