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Flashback Friday: Republicans brought national convention to Minneapolis in 1892

Nomination day at the 1892 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis. Photo: courtesy Library of Congress
Nomination day at the 1892 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis.

June 07, 2019 01:14 PM

Republican presidential nominees haven't had much luck in Minnesota in recent decades.

The last GOP candidate to carry the state was Richard Nixon in 1972, though Donald Trump lost here by a margin of only around 1.5 percent in 2016.

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But if Minnesota has remained in the Democratic column for many years now, the Republicans are still the only of the two major parties to have held their nominating convention here.

Twice, in fact.

The last time came just 11 years ago in 2008 when Arizona Senator John McCain accepted his party's nomination at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, setting the stage for an election he lost to Democratic Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.

The other occasion occurred 127 years ago this week, from June 7-10, 1892, when GOP delegates gathered at the old International Exposition Building, which stood on the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis east of St. Anthony Falls from 1886 to 1940.

In the final decades of the 19th century, Minnesota was as reliable for the Republicans as it has been for the Democrats in recent times. 

Starting with Abraham Lincoln in 1860, the state failed to vote Republican in just one presidential election through 1928 - that coming in 1912 when former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt broke ranks with his party and ran as the Bull Moose candidate.

So when civic leaders mounted a bid to bring a national convention here, the Republicans were the obvious choice.

"At the time, Minneapolis was considered a city on the make," said local historian Iric Nathanson, who on the eve of the 2008 GOP convention wrote a MinnPost article looking back at the state's first time hosting such an event.

"Between 1880 and 1890, the city's population more than doubled, and it was well on its way to becoming the milling capital of the world. So the city fathers had visions of grandeur and wanted to do something to put the place on the map.

"Getting a national convention in those days was like getting the Super Bowl or Final Four today."

And a Minnesota delegation that included Thomas Lowry, the Twin Cities street car magnate, and Republican U.S. Senator William Washburn succeeded in convincing the Republican National Committee to hold its convention here - beating out competition from New York, San Francisco, Detroit, Omaha, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Chattanooga and Cincinnati, according to a MNopedia article on the convention by author Molly Huber.

"It really was viewed as a chance to get Minneapolis noticed," Huber said. "A lot of important people would be coming to see Minnesota for the first time."

From the start, incumbent President Benjamin Harrison was the favorite to again get the nomination. Though a dose of drama was injected when perennial Republican candidate James G. Blaine - who had been serving as Harrison's Secretary of State - resigned on June 4, just days before the convention opened.

It was a move many saw as positioning himself to wrest the nomination from Harrison, whose support among some in the party was only lukewarm.

His name would be put forward for nomination, and though there would be reports of tension between Harrison and Blaine supporters, Lowry assured his fellow Republicans prior to the convention's opening that his Minnesotans would behave in an unbiased fashion.

"Minneapolis people will not hurrah for any side during the convention," he was quoted as saying in the June 1 edition of the Minneapolis Tribune, perhaps articulating the late-19th century version of Minnesota nice.

"They will allow it to act unbiased so far as it is concerned. They may have preferences, but their chief business at present is to make it pleasant for their guests."

In the end, the convention did nominate Harrison (though in keeping with the tradition of the time, he did not attend in person). And he would go on to lose to Democrat Grover Cleveland, the same man he had beaten four years before.

Vice President Levi Morton was not as lucky. He was dropped from the ticket in favor of U.S. Ambassador to France Whitelaw Reid.

The convention actually finished its business in just three days, coming in a day ahead of schedule.

Many of the delegates had been staying at the West Hotel, a posh and luxurious building at the intersection of Hennepin Avenue and Fifth Street.

Even so, not everyone came away impressed.

"Minneapolis will not soon be selected again by the Republicans as the place of holding a national convention," read an account in the Boston Advertiser quoted in a 1956 article in a Minnesota Historical Society magazine.

"Her citizens did everything they could to make the convention a success and insure the comfort of every visitor to the city, but they were badly handicapped in their efforts by the fact that Minneapolis was never intended as a convention city and refused to be turned into one at the last moment.

"The one hotel of any size lacks opportunity for the corridor enthusiasm which lends such great enchantment to a national convention. Every time that the lobby would fill with a cheering, howling, marching crowd, the proprietor would hastily mount the desk and command the crowd to disperse, assuring them that if they did not the floor would break down and there would be a fearful accident."

Indeed, it would be 116 years before the Republicans would return to the Twin Cities.

"It went OK," Nathanson said. "There was some big dinner where the delegates were fed beans and that didn't go over very well. I don't think the eastern press went back home and reported very favorably about Minneapolis.

"But they pulled it off, and it was the first time Minnesota had held an event like that."

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Frank Rajkowski

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