ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — No Minnesota governor in almost two decades has won with a majority of the statewide vote, thanks mostly to a plucky third party whose candidates have been difference makers or, in the case of Jesse Ventura, the stunning victor.
With the 2014 campaign approaching, there’s discussion within the Independence Party about whether to drive hard at the governor’s race or concentrate on more promising contests. The IP needs at least 5 percent in one statewide race to keep its guaranteed ballot line and access to public campaign subsidies for years to come.
As Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton gears up for a re-election bid, he and his team have started honing themes, restocking his near-empty campaign fund and meeting with consultants and others involved in political advertising. Two Republicans, Orono businessman Scott Honour and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, are busy raising money and contacting GOP convention delegates as the early entrants in a field virtually certain to grow.
But there’s been little such jockeying detected on the IP front.
Tom Horner, the party’s 2010 nominee for governor, said he spoke last month to IP Chairman Mark Jenkins about being selective with limited resources and volunteer energy for the 2014 campaign.
“The party needs to focus on showing it can win at some level,” Horner said of his advice to Jenkins. “They’re better off focusing on the Senate race than the governor’s race unless they find a really solid candidate.”
Horner said he’s not inclined to take another shot because he can’t see the path to winning right now.
Jenkins said a few people entertaining a run have contacted him, but they’re waiting to see how the race shapes up. He wouldn’t identify them.
“I don’t have anyone chomping at the bit to get their name out and tout their candidacy,” Jenkins said, adding that he hopes at least one steps up by this fall to start raising money and name recognition. “I would love to see someone get gutsy and jump in early and make it a three-way race from the beginning.”
In 2012, Independence Party leaders opted against committing resources to the ticket-topping U.S. Senate race, figuring Democratic incumbent Amy Klobuchar was a lock for re-election. An obscure candidate snagged the party’s ballot line anyway but barely registered in Klobuchar’s eventual rout.
Even if the party fails to recruit a notable gubernatorial challenger, there’s no chance the IP’s ballot line sits empty. It’s easy for anyone to register a campaign and plunk down the $300 filing fee. They don’t have to prove prior ties to the party. And because the IP enjoys major-party status, a petition with a minimum of 2,000 signatures isn’t required.
The important marker for the party is to get 5 percent or more of the vote in any of the five statewide races to maintain the major party label. So far only one office — secretary of state — is a contest with no incumbent running.
Peter Hutchinson, who was the IP’s standard bearer in 2006, said he thinks it’ll be tough to knock off the incumbent Dayton in 2014. But he still wants his party to take a shot.
If nothing else, Hutchinson said a third-party candidate can force discussion of ideas that otherwise lack attention.
“There are perspectives in between the two extremes that just don’t have a voice,” Hutchinson said. “I encourage people regardless of what they think the outcome will be to get out there and get those things expressed.”
The Independence Party is built on a fiscally conservative, socially liberal philosophy. It was known as the Reform Party when Minnesota founder Dean Barkley’s decent showing in successive Senate races elevated it to a major party. That paid off in 1998 when Ventura, a former pro wrestler and talk show host, rode its banner to a surprise win. A falling-out with national Reform Party leaders caused Ventura and his Minnesota allies to rebrand it as the Independence Party in 2000.
Many of its nominees have roots in either the Democratic or Republican parties, who have invariably staked out center-right or center-left platforms. Where the nominee lines up can have a big effect on the governor’s race.
In 2002, former Democratic Rep. Tim Penny was the IP nominee, scoring 16 percent of the vote in a race that Republican Tim Pawlenty won by eight. Four years later, the former Democratic cabinet member Hutchinson notched 6.5 percent for the IP in a race Pawlenty squeaked out by a single percentage point over the Democratic nominee.
Last time, lifelong Republican Horner netted 12 percent of the vote as the IP candidate; Dayton wound up beating GOP nominee Tom Emmer by less than a half-point in a race that spilled into a recount.
Former Republican Party Chairman Tony Sutton said no one can say equivocally that Horner cost Emmer the race. But Sutton said Horner’s presence froze normally reliable Republican donors, particularly from the business community, while they assessed the chances of both men. That left Emmer largely defenseless when he was taking a beating from Democratic-aligned groups on the airwaves.
“He certainly cost us money and access to money at the time we needed it,” Sutton said.
After Ventura’s win in a race where he was largely ignored as a novelty candidate, both parties learned to confront IP hopefuls in similar fashion to their bigger rivals. Sutton said 2010 should teach his party a new lesson.
“Not only do you take these guys seriously in the electorate, but you have to take them seriously behind the scenes,” he said.
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