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Minnesota Monitor: Independence Party tries to stay strong in a partisan age

MINNESOTA MONITOR

by Jeff Fecke

They say that numbers don’t lie. If so, then there are three numbers that tell a dismal tale for the Independence Party: 37, 16 and six. That’s the share of the vote Independence Party gubernatorial candidates won in 1998, 2002 and 2006. The numbers tell the tale of a party that has waned significantly in importance since the surprise victory of former Gov. Jesse Ventura in 1998.

“Clearly, the Independence Party did better in this state than any other third party did in a long time,” said Tim Johnson, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, in an interview with Minnesota Monitor. “They did incredibly well, getting Gov. Ventura elected, but then it kind of fizzled out.”

Johnson said that’s common among third parties. Several things keep third parties from gaining a foothold, Johnson said, “and most of them are institutional rules we set up in the country.”

“The [two major] parties have really retrenched themselves,” Johnson added. “All of the rules are set up to favor the two major parties. Given that any electoral changes would have to come through Congress, it’s difficult.”

The difficulty was evident in a post written by blogger Mike Grimes, of the blog Minnesota’s in the Middle. Grimes praised the Independence Party for making the decision to affiliate with the Independence Party of New York, allowing it to grow as a national force. And he said that cross-endorsement, where the Independence Party chooses to sit out an election and instead endorse the DFL or Republican candidate, “creates a real oppurtunity [sic].” He added, “it’s beyond time this party figures out what kind of candidate they need and let those that don’t fit that mold go in another direction. Hopefully cross endorsement will allow the party move beyond endorsing any moron who asks for it, but thats [sic] asking a lot.”

Grimes also expressed concern about the only declared candidate for the Independence Party endorsement, Stephen Williams of Austin. He said that while candidates like Williams were “not bad people,” they “would be very bad for the party.”

“Obviously, we’re at a great disadvantage this cycle.”

Former Sen. Dean Barkley, IP-Minn., says that rumors of the party’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

In an interview with Minnesota Monitor, Barkley said, “Everyone keeps on trying to compare the IP to the other two major parties on size. We’re never going to be that type of party.” Barkley added that attendance at the caucus and state convention level was still similar to what it had been in 1994. But he said the party’s nature made it difficult sometimes to grow.

“Quite frankly, it’s almost impossible to organize independents,” he joked. But he added, “We continue to put out candidates who I think are superior to the other parties’ candidates.” And he dismissed concerns about the party’s ultimate Senate candidate. Saying he’d discussed the race with a few potential candidates, Barkley said, “I am convinced that we will have someone viable by June.”

Craig Swaggert, the party’s chair, agreed with Barkley. He acknowledged that the party’s diminishing vote totals in statewide races were “a concern.” He added, “In general, I think that unless our candidates get some traction early on, they don’t seem to increase that much in the polls.”

But Swaggert said that his focus is now on building from the bottom up. “I’ve pushed for that, to be more focused on the local elections. Obviously, we want to keep our major party status, (but) we have it through 2012. This election cycle is not about keeping our status. This cycle is about finding good candidates, especially for legislative offices.”

Barkley and Swaggert were upbeat. Noting that the Independence Party had no obvious presidential campaign to rally around, Barkley said, “Obviously, we’re at a great disadvantage this cycle. Everyone was hoping Bloomberg was going to be the candidate, but he hasn’t announced yet.” But Barkley said he believed the party was still in strong shape.

“The party itself is fine. We’re still there, we’ve been doing well since 1994, we’re still here. No other third party in Minnesota has done that well since the Farmer-Labor party merger.”

Johnson, though, sounded a cautious note.

“There will be conditions again that will allow that party to come back in an election or two. Will it be permanent? Probably not, because of the system. But I think they’ll still have a voice.”

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