Independence Party vies for governor

Experts are unsure of the impact the party will have on this fall’s gubernatorial election.

Tom Horner speaks at a press conference Thursday in the State Office building in Saint Paul.  Horner announced his four-year plan, which includes more research funding for the University of Minnesota

Gina Reis

Tom Horner speaks at a press conference Thursday in the State Office building in Saint Paul. Horner announced his four-year plan, which includes more research funding for the University of Minnesota

by James Nord

Despite the state’s independent streak, it is uncertain how the party that brought Jesse Ventura to Minnesota will affect the 2010 gubernatorial elections, experts say.
Tom Horner, the Independence Party’s endorsed candidate for governor, faces a primary battle in August before turning his sights to a tough general election in November.
He triumphed at the party convention in May with 68 percent of delegate support, but his closest competitor, Rob Hahn, can’t be discounted because primary turnout is typically low, University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said.
“He faces a challenge, but I don’t think it’s a serious challenge,” said David Schultz, a public policy professor at Hamline University.
In November’s general election, the amount of money Horner has raised will define his place, Schultz said.
“If he can raise a million dollars between now and the middle to end of August, then he has a serious chance,” Schultz said. “If he can’t … I think he’s probably not going to get more than 8 to 10 percent [of the vote].”
If Horner doesn’t win, he could act as a “kingmaker,” drawing votes away from one or both of the major parties, said Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs.
This election is shaping up to be different from most, though, because Horner could poach greater numbers of moderate Republicans than in the past, Schultz said. For every two Democrats, he predicted three Republicans would vote for Horner.
Horner’s assertions that Republicans have been attacking him for that reason rang hollow with Jacobs, however.
“Horner’s been whining, but he hasn’t seen anything yet,” he said. “If the Republicans get worried, it’ll be very obvious.”
DFL hopeful Mark Dayton’s deputy campaign manager Katharine Tinucci said the upcoming primary is first on the agenda, but called Horner a “serious and viable candidate.”
Both major parties are probably hoping Horner fades into obscurity without their help, Jacobs said.
Currently, Minnesota has a “hard-core base” of independent voters, making up about 8 to 9 percent of the electorate, Schultz said.
The state’s unique support of independent candidates stems from nonpartisan local elections that cause voters to pay less attention to party labels (which could translate to less attachment to party affiliation during partisan races), among other factors, Schultz said.
But voter support for Independent candidates in gubernatorial races has decreased consistently since Ventura won in a three-way race in 1998 with about 37 percent of the vote. In 2002, former U.S. Rep. Tim Penny walked away with 16 percent, and in 2006 Peter Hutchinson garnered about 6 percent.
A series of KSTP polls released June 17 compared Horner to the three DFL candidates and Republican endorsed candidate Tom Emmer. Each showed 12 percent of about 1,600 likely November voters supported Horner. The polls had a 2.5 percent margin of error.
Penny, a political party expert and senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute, explained that his party’s previous lackluster performance resulted from the political climate of the time. For instance, Sen. Paul Wellstone’s death in 2002 strengthened support for the Democrats during the final stretch of his bid, he said.
Penny also pointed out that an Independent has occupied the governor’s office more recently than a Democrat. The last DFLer-elected governor was Rudy Perpich in 1982.
But Schultz and Jacobs said Ventura was a different, more charming candidate who knew how to sell himself. Further, Ventura vied for office while the state was prospering economically, a far cry from the current fiscal crisis.
“Thirty-seven percent of the population gave the state the middle finger,” Schultz said. “There was a certain percentage that basically said ‘F you’ to the state, ‘We’re going to vote something different.’”
Penny said it’s likely his party could capture the same attitude because the other two candidates are non-incumbents. He also said the country is so polarized politically that a moderate candidate is attractive.
Horner agreed.
“Are there 800,000 Minnesotans who will pull the lever for an Independence Party candidate? That’s not the long shot anymore,” he said. “I’m fully convinced that they’re out there. They’re tired of the gridlock, they know we need to make … tough decisions and move Minnesota forward.”
Horner is relying on painting major party candidates as radical partisans and himself as middle-of-the-road to attract moderate voters from both parties, Jacobs said.
If he’s able to attract 30 percent of each major party as well as 50 to 60 percent of independents, Horner said he is confident he will win.
Hardening party lines could work against Horner, though. The DFL’s extreme eagerness to take the seat could spur loyalty to party over candidate, and the Republican backlash against Democratic policies could keep less conservative members in line, Jacobs said.
There has been some debate about the direction of the party if Horner loses, Penny said. Horner called it a “watershed” year for the party and said more energy could be put into winning local elections in the future.
Both statewide and local campaigns are important to spread the party’s message and to continue its work, Penny said.
“We’re not going to go away.”