The disgraced president was out of a job, and the Minnesota Republican Party was faced with a choice.
They could side with the president. They could swallow his lies. They could hold tight to the party line and let everything else unravel.
Instead, they let Richard Nixon board that helicopter and fly away. After Watergate, Minnesota Republicans looked ahead.
“We started looking to the future,” said Chuck Slocum, who was 28 years old when he took over as chairman of the state GOP in 1975.
Internal polls at the time found that just 10% of Minnesota Republicans were proud to call themselves such after Watergate, it being an era when lying was almost as shameful a political pastime as hiring burglars to steal information from opposing campaigns.
So Minnesota Republicans set to work. They reached out to young voters, to labor groups. They started a GOP feminist caucus. They never spoke of Nixon. They gave the Minnesota GOP a new name.
“We decided to become the Independent Republicans of Minnesota,” Slocum said. “It was a powerful way to independently redefine ourselves.”
By 1978, Independent Republicans occupied the Minnesota governorship, both U.S. Senate seats and exactly half the seats in the state House.
Now the generation that rebuilt after Watergate watches the next generation face its own stinging defeat.
“I have no idea what they’re doing,” said former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger. “They just appear to be thrashing around, looking for a purpose.”
Durenberger joined the Republicans for Biden coalition during the 2020 campaign and found he had plenty of company from his Watergate-era Republican peers. He called about 14 former Republican senators to gauge support for the Biden campaign. He only found only one — Minnesota’s own Rudy Boschwitz, he said — who was planning to vote for President Donald Trump.
The rest, he said, looked at GOP leadership, standing silently by as the president lied and attacked the integrity of America’s elections and institutions and asked, “What the hell are they doing?”
Joe Biden won the election. He won the recounts. He won dozens of more times as courts across the land tossed out the Trump team’s spurious lawsuits.
Trump “was an abomination,” said Peter Bell, former chairman of the Metropolitan Council and proud Never Trumper.
Bell, appointed to the Met Council by former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, wonders how long the national party can limp along on voter suppression and “constitutional anomalies” — like winning the electoral college while losing the popular vote, or leveraging the power of the U.S. Senate, where two votes from South Dakota can cancel out California.
“If they hold power via that, the country will not accept that over an extended period of time,” Bell said. “They have to be a party people want in large numbers. And I don’t know if they’re capable of doing that.”
If the party stopped looking back, they might find a purpose. They might even find issues that the two parties could work on together. Issues that appeal to most Minnesotans because they’d benefit most Minnesotans. A stimulus package to help people and businesses through the pandemic. Infrastructure projects. A healthcare system that doesn’t bankrupt its own patients.
But Minnesota Republicans can’t stop looking over their shoulders.
MNGOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan claimed — wrongly — that the November elections were riddled with “extreme abnormalities and statistical variations from Minnesota’s historic voter trends.” Not one member of Minnesota’s Republican congressional delegation has acknowledged Joe Biden as the president-elect. Cookie-cutter lawsuits challenge the integrity of Minnesota’s congressional elections. But only the races the GOP lost.
The Minnesota Senate will hold a hearing this week on Dominion-brand voting systems. Presumably to get to the bottom of the mystery of how Donald Trump only managed to carry four of the five counties in Minnesota that use these machines. Holding a hearing on a baseless internet conspiracy theory is like holding a hearing to determine whether there really is a lake monster named Pepie living in Lake Pepin. Bonkers, but bound to make at least a few people wonder. If the Senate is holding a hearing about a monster in the lake, maybe there’s something down there. Dominion employees are facing death threats. Election officials in other states need security guards now. Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon’s wife and sister have been harassed online.
Just because a conspiracy theory is stupid and wrong doesn’t mean it can’t get someone killed.
Pizzagate was stupid and wrong too. Until a guy with an AR-15-style rifle walked into Comet Ping-Pong and starting blowing holes in the restaurant. The internet told him the Democratic National Committee was running a child sex-trafficking ring out of the basement of Washington, D.C., pizzeria and the guy with the gun believed it. Right up until the moment the police hauled him away and he found out Comet Ping-Pong doesn’t have a basement. The disgraced president is out of a job.
The Minnesota Republican Party faces a choice.