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The lesson of Jesse Ventura applied to Tom Horner

MinnPost photos by Terry Gydesen

Vin Weber, the Republican bigfoot of Minnesota and Washington who has had a role in most of the major Republican campaigns of recent cycles, recalls it as “the worst political advice I ever gave to any candidate.”

In 1998, he urged the campaign brain trust of Repub gubernatorial candidate Norm Coleman to avoid attacking the Reform Party nominee Jesse Ventura.

No one thought Ventura had any chance to win. And the then-standard conventional wisdom about three-way races was that it was dangerous to go on the attack. If A attacks B, voters might believe the attack but also recoil from A for making it. Thus the only beneficiary might be C.

Eric Johnson was senior advisor to the campaign of DFL nominee Hubert H. (Skip) Humphrey III. They made the same decision and no one in the inner circle disputed it, as best Johnson recalls. First of all, all the polling showed it was a two-way race, and a really, really close one at that, likely to be decided by a point or two.

“Everyone thought it was a risk to go after Jesse,” Johnson said. Both campaigns assumed that Ventura would follow the usual fade-in-the-stretch tendency of third-party candidates. Both campaigns wanted to capture those late-breaking independent voters who would abandon Ventura when they realized he had no chance.

Of course it turns out that Ventura didn’t fade and did have a chance. In fact, a winning chance. And that experience is at least part of the reason that this year DFLer Mark Dayton and Repub Tom Emmer haven’t hesitated to go after IP nominee Tom Horner. They do it all the time during debates. Their allies do it in TV ads. The current ad rotations contain this one from Dayton ally Alliance for a Better Minnesota:

And this one by Emmer ally Minnesota’s Future:

Yes, I will stipulate that these attacks come from the so-called independent groups that aren’t allowed to coordinate with the campaigns, although I don’t take the full “independence” of these groups all that seriously. I’m not alleging secret illegal coordination meetings. It’s just too convenient for the candidates to say they have not run attack ads, knowing that their allies can and will do so and everyone can hide behind the no-coordination dodge. In fact, Eric Johnson told me that one of the reasons no one attacked Jesse in 1998 was that these independent groups didn’t exist and the candidates bore more direct responsibility for the ads.

(It’s worth noting in passing that the existence of these independent groups is yet one more reason that it’s so hard for the IP to win elections.The IP has no such allies pumping in millions of buckaroos and doing some of the dirty work so the candidates don’t have to.)

And it’s also true that the tone of these attacks is quite temperate by today’s standards, hitting horner for his issue positions, as compared with ads that portray Emmer as a drunk driver or Dayton as an erratic coward. Like some other commentators, I’ve noted the impressive politeness (and substance) between the candidates when they debate and even when they attack their opponents on the stump.

I also find it noteworthy that the two ads above take the same approach, in opposite directions. Republicans want you to think you have a choice between one conservative, who won’t raise taxes, and two liberals, who will. DFLers want you to also see a binary choice, a candidate who will tax the rich and fight for ordinary Minnesotans and two Republicans who will tax the middle class and save tax relief for big business and the wealthy.

Of course, the big explanation for the difference between the hands-off attitude toward Ventura and the willingness to take on Horner is that in the fall of 1998, Jesse hadn’t yet rocked the world. He not only pulled off a huge upset, but he ushered a new era of relevant third-party candidates in Minnesota. Although no IPer has won any significant race since Ventura, it’s widely believed that they have determined the outcome of many races by taking more votes from the natural base of one major party or the other.

Johnson isn’t so active in politics any more, but he has observed that since 1998 the Dem and Repub campaigns for all major offices in which there is even a halfway serious IP candidate start early to figure out how and when to address the IP candidate and and their supporters to push them on one side or the other.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Laura Knudsen on 10/21/2010 - 09:54 am.

    The polls got in wrong in 1998 when Venture won and they are getting it wrong again this year. Horner will win. Eric Black is getting it wrong when he writes “Although no IPer has won any significant race since Ventura…” Sheila Kiscaden won as her State Senate seat in 2002 as an IP candidate. I think most would consider the State Senate a significant race. There have also been local wins. Mr. Black may either not be aware of this or maybe he doesn’t consider local races significant but IP members have won local races including city council races and Mayoral races. I do consider those signifcant. Politics begin at the local level.

  2. Submitted by larry boss on 10/21/2010 - 10:16 am.

    Get real! On November 3, the headlines will read: Dayton 45%, Emmer 34% Horner 17% 1% Other and yes, the IP will play spoiler again. Whant to bet whether the IP will ever see Horner and his supporters again after November 2?

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/21/2010 - 10:48 am.

    The lesson is that Tom Horner is not Jesse Ventura.
    Ventura had a nonpolitical appeal that pulled in many young people who had not previously voted.
    Horner, on the other hand, has a history of identification with the Republican party, and is appealing to existing voters rather than new ones.
    I agree with Larry, although Horner’s support could evaporate even further as people think about throwing away their vote on a gesture (it’s easier to talk about it two weeks before the election than to actually do it in the voting booth).

  4. Submitted by Thomas Sherman on 10/21/2010 - 10:50 am.

    History won’t repeat itself with a 3rd party candidate coming out of nowhere to win because Horner is taken seriously.

    Jesse was never taken seriously. Also, Jesse had charisma and inspired young people. Horner doesn’t have the ability to widely inspire nor does he have charisma.

    Sorry folks, but the polls have it right this year.

  5. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 10/21/2010 - 01:38 pm.

    The other reason Ventura won in 1998 was the Hunting and Fishing Amendment. Here in Anoka County, guys who had never voted before in their life came to vote and, while they were at, voted for the one guy who was on a television program they actually watched.


    Eric was being kind. Kiscaden moved to the IP. Without her previously having been a Republican, she would have never made it. There is no “party” to the Independence Party. It is the Independence “Collection of Semi-Interested Partially Political People” or whatever. Parties do a lot and without a real one the IP can’t. Even most of the people who endorsed Horner will go back to the parties from which they came as soon as the election is over with.

    To parphrase Monty Python:
    This party is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisibile!! THIS IS AN EX-PARTY!!

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/21/2010 - 04:31 pm.

    As a relative newbie to the state, I’m amazed and delighted to find in Minnesota someone else who can dredge up lines from my all-time favorite movie.

  7. Submitted by John Hallquist on 10/21/2010 - 08:41 pm.

    I agree with Paul. Jesse Ventura had a lot of new and young voters which pulled for him. I still remember his inaugural speech where he thanked all the young and new voters who helped him into office. I’m just not sure Tom Horner is very well known like Ventura was, especially to younger generations. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens.

  8. Submitted by Tim Larson on 10/21/2010 - 09:41 pm.

    //I’m amazed and delighted to find in Minnesota someone else who can dredge up lines from my all-time favorite movie.

    Ray, That’s from the dead parrot sketch on the show. Are you thinking of “Bring out your dead?” from MP and the Holy Grail? Because that’s just as accurate!

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