A play with a cast of thousands – heroes and villains and the spotlight shining a little more on the extras

Smart Politics announces the launch of the Minnesota Historical Candidate Biographical Database – a first-of-its-kind resource that centralizes key biographical data in a searchable format to facilitate research by county historical societies, citizen researchers, journalists, and educators on all candidates and nominees who have run for state and federal office in Minnesota history. Not just the winners, but also those who came up short.

The Biographical Database is built into the Minnesota Historical Election Archive – the largest collection of searchable Minnesota election data, assembling the returns of more than 20,000 elections across 17 different federal and state offices since 1858. The Archive is also curated by Smart Politics.

More than a dozen variables were used to create the candidate biographies, with sources listed on each candidate’s profile page. More than 10,000 biographies are already live on the site with dozens more being added each week.

In addition, more than 6,000 images of candidate photos and print campaign advertisements have been uploaded to the database.

The Forgotten

While the background of some Minnesota politicians are well-known (e.g. Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale), the stories of many have been lost to history. In fact, the losers of Minnesota elections outnumber the winners by as many as 10:1 for several offices.

To put into perspective the scale of losing versus winning candidates, consider the following: since statehood, there have been 1,513 men and women who have appeared on a Minnesota primary, special, or general election ballot to the U.S. House of Representatives. Just 144 have been victorious. The defeated outnumber the winners by more than 10 to 1.

Similar ratios can be seen in elections for Minnesota U.S. Senator (367 ran, 38 elected), Governor (374 ran, 40 elected), and Secretary of State (214 ran, 21 elected) plus several other offices.

Many of these candidates – particularly during the 19th and early 20th Centuries – were important local leaders, business owners, judges, or prominent farmers who simply came up short in their bids for state or national political prominence. Their professional accomplishments and forays into politics have often been forgotten and this Database shines a light on their campaigns and lives.

Some stories are rather quaint:

  • Luther Jaeger: The 1886 Democratic nominee for Secretary of State ran against his father-in-law in the general election – former GOP Secretary of State Hans Mattson. Jaeger lost but his marriage was saved.
  • Winifred McDermott: A former teacher from Swift County who ran for Clerk of the Supreme Court in 1926 and was the first woman to get married – and thus change her name – between winning the nomination and the general election. The state Attorney General’s office ruled McDermott could pick which name she wanted to appear on the ballot and she chose her maiden name.
  • Carroll F. King: A State Representative from Pine County in the 1950s who left the state with his family during his first term to join a religious commune in Pennsylvania.
  • Allen Desmond and Anne Desmond: a married couple from Minneapolis who were both nominees for the same State House seat in 1964. They placed third and fourth in the top-two general election.

Tragically, multiple candidates and officeholders were later institutionalized or committed suicide. Others were murdered including:

  • Democratic State Representative John D. Smith of Inver Grove Township (1866-1867) who was killed from a blow to the head while driving his wagon full of wood to St. Paul in 1878.
  • Republican State Representative Charles E. Stacy of Farmington (1878-1881) who was beaten by a highwayman and knocked off his horse and died in 1881.
  • Conservative Caucus State Representative (1941-1943) and Senator (1943-1959) Ralph Mayhood of Minneapolis who was beaten to death in 1978 at a rooming house where he was a slumlord. The property was condemned less than a week after his murder.

Some candidates built up quite a resume over their lifetime:

  • Gustaf Youngquist: The Polk County Republican did not serve long as state Attorney General (February 1928 to November 1929), but resigned to work for the Department of Justice and became an Assistant U.S. Attorney General in charge of the tax division. He headed the investigation that led to the prosecution of Al Capone for income tax fraud.
  • Robert Kunzig: Kunzig was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crime trials and former Pennsylvania Deputy Attorney General. However, that resume was not quite good enough to unseat Attorney General Walter Mondale in the 1962 election.
  • Joe Robbie: The DFL Minneapolis attorney launched two failed attempts to unseat 5th CD U.S. Representative Walter Judd, but landed on his feet as sole owner of the Miami Dolphins football franchise from 1965 to 1990.

But not all little-known candidates were diamonds in the rough. Here are a few such snapshots of ‘colorful’ Minnesota candidates:

  • Russell B. Bentley: An early 1990s U.S. Senate and 5th CD Grassroots Party nominee who became a pro-Russia/Putin activist embedded with Russian troops in Ukraine during the 2010s to make videos and blogs. He is now known as “The Donbas Cowboy.”
  • Karl Granse: A Republican congressional candidate from Ramsey County in 1984 who was later linked to the Oklahoma City bombing and interviewed by the FBI. Bombing conspirator James Nichols had called Granse two days before the bombing and owned anti-government tapes Granse had produced.
  • Daniel Grogan: The DFL nominee for Stillwater’s HD 51A in 1978 went on a bank robbing spree across three states beginning a month after his general election loss, eventually pleading guilty to seven bank robberies and one count of taking a hostage en route to a 10-year federal sentence.
  • Leonard J. Richards: A Republican candidate from Keewatin for the 8th CD and U.S. Senate during the 1970s was tied to two murders during the 1980s and convicted for killing his attorney in 1987. He has been a DFL candidate from prison in Oak Park Heights four times since – for Treasurer in 1990, for the 8th CD in 1992, and for the U.S. Senate in 1994 and 2018.

County Data

To facilitate research at the county level, the Database has also added search capabilities for candidates by their (Minnesota) county of birth or residence.

Individual county pages include information highlighting:

  • Notable candidates born in or residing in that county at the time of their campaign
  • Summary tables of U.S. House, State Senate, and State House district numbers corresponding to each congressional and state legislative redistricting period since statehood
  • The first 10 (alphabetically) candidates born or residing in the county
  • Links to filter the database for a list of all county native and resident candidates

The goal of the Biographical Database is to generate greater interest in and further educate the public about Minnesota’s rich political and electoral history through the lens of the men and women who have run for public office.

The Candidate Database and the Minnesota Historical Election Archive are curated by Dr. Eric Ostermeier, Smart Politics founder and author and Research Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Among the many features of the Candidate Database is the inclusion of hundreds of links to related reports about the candidates published at Smart Politics over the last 17 years. Smart Politics will periodically highlight the stories of these candidates in reports published on this site.

The Minnesota Historical Candidate Biographical Database has been financed in part with funds provided by the State of Minnesota from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society.

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  1. Daniel Fox on August 30, 2023 at 9:32 pm

    This is a great idea! I hope it catches on.


  2. Cecil Crusher on August 31, 2023 at 9:04 am

    James Shields: One of the ‘inaugural’ US senators – though he actually had previously served in nearby IL (he would later serve as US senator from MO for an even shorter duration)~

    US Representative Cornelia Genevive Gjesdal Knutson (parts of the current CD-7) : trailblazer for female politicians in both MN and nationally – and arguably a martyr, at least within the state~

    Just two of the comparatively more noteworthy officeholders the Gopher State has produced…

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