How to Get Mangled in Minnesota Politics: Sandy Keith Succumbs to Sympathy Vote

The Keith victory party fizzled on primary election night in Minnesota. The 400 assembled politicos had spent the night mumbling over their drinks in gloomy groups of three or four, as early returns indicated that the convention-endorsed Democratic ticket was taking the worst beating in memory. Their candidate for governor, 37-year-old A. M. (Sandy) Keith, entered the room shortly after 11 p.m., and the faithful desperately attempted a raucous cheer. Keith smiled gamely as he conceded defeat, but his wife had obviously been crying.

Her ambitious husband's political career may well be ended, but she could have been weeping for Minnesota Democrats too. The once-proud party of Hubert Humphrey, created in 1944 when he merged Democrats and Farm-Laborites into the Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party, had been humiliated by one of its own, Governor Karl F. Rolvaag. Rolvaag, dumped by the party organization, decided to run for a second term anyway, and clobbered Keith in the September 13 primary by a margin of more than two to one to become the now-chastened Democrats' candidate for Governor. The blow to party prestige was compounded that night as Rolvaag's running-mate defeated the party convention's candidates for Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General.

Minnesota politics has slithered into the national press twice this year -- in June when the DFL convention refused to renominate Rolvaag, endorsing instead his Lieutenant Governor, Keith, and three months later when Rolvaag won the primary so decisively. Actually neither event was in the least surprising at the time it occurred.

What shocked almost everyone, however, was the Governor's decision to take on his own party leaders. Rolvaag was on a plane to Cincinnati well before the convention officially rejected him. After a Governors' conference there he retreated to Florida, apparently a defeated old man licking his wounds far from the secene of his humiliation. Vice President Humphrey, the party's titular leader, publicly advised him not to run against Keith, and it seemed inevitable that Rolvaag, a faithful D.F.L. drone for 18 years, would abide by the party's decision.

But two weeks later Rolvaag was back in Minnesota, a declared candidate and almost instantly a sure winner. He had a simple but ultimately devastating slogan -- "Let the people decide." The usually accurate Minnesota Poll, operated by the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, showed in late July that the party rank-in-file would decide in favor of Rolvaag by a margin of more than 20 per cent.

The governor's triumph over the party pros, who were sure they could dump him, can be explained in two words -- sympathy and money.

The conventional explanation DFL-ers gave for jettisoning Rolvaag was his "bad image." The governor unquestionably appears dour, remote, and uninspiring to the public. His face looks terrible on television, and he is a nervous public speaker who mumbles choppy, barely coherent answers when grilled on panel shows.

While the party pros were right in appraising Rolvaag as less than charismatic, they failed to see that he is a very easy man to feel sorry for. By re-entering the race, Rolvaag became a courageous underdog fighting the undemocratic party leadership. Still his campaign would never have succeeded had his opponent been anyone but lieutenant governor Sandy Keith -- a perfect villain for the drama.

All of Keith's vote-getting virtues have a treacherous potential for turning into liabilities. This year he decided to make youth and "dynamic leadership" his selling points. But the backlash from older voters, repulsed at seeing the middle-aged Rolvaag displaced by his ambitious lieutenant governor, largely accounts for Keith's failure.

With ostentatious casualness he registered on the official ballot as "A.M. ('Sandy') Keith." His main campaign brochure featured a carefully cropped photo of Keith beside the late President Kennedy waving triumphantly at a D.F.L. rally.

Keith is well-educated (Amherst and Yale Law) and speaks eruditely. He challenged Rolvaag to debate him in public or at least discuss his stand on substantive issues like Minnesota's taxation system. In the emotion-charged campaign atmosphere the Governor's refusal to do either went virtually unnoticed.

Even Keith's good looks and aggressive manner turned against him. A Republican leader called him a "smiling Barracuda" in June and the label stuck. Keith couldn't escape the role of the brash subordinate turning against his boss.

Sympathy Remains

The initial burst of sympathy for Rolvaag might have faded away by election time were it not for his remarkably well-financed campaign organization. During the two weeks after the convention, Rolvaag formed a coalition with a Minneapolis trucking executive, Robert Short. Short -- who has owned things like the largest hotel in Minneapolis and the Los Angeles Lakers -- has been looking for years for a chance to snatch a major political office. He lingered in the shadows of the June convention as a possible compromise candidate for governor in case the Rolvaag and Keith factions became deadlocked.

When Rolvaag offered Short the lieutenant governor slot on his "independent" ticket, the bandwagon was rolling. Rolvaag soon had the influential support of Twin Cities labor unions. The "Short for Lieutenant-Governor" and "Rolvaag-Short" campaigns were models of logistic efficiency. Billboards, bumper stcikers, newspaper ads, television and radio spots saturated the state.