Minnesota’s polarized political parties provide Independence Party an opening in governor’s race

State Sen. Dick Day was speechless, unusual for the Owatonna Republican.

What silenced Day was this question: How do you define a moderate Republican in 2009?

After a long pause, Day finally hit upon his answer.

“That’s someone who can’t get endorsed,” he said.

The subject of moderation among Republicans was raised recently, when former U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad said in a Minnesota Public Radio interview that there was just a small chance that he might consider running for governor. As quickly as he raised the window of opportunity, though, he shut it tightly, telling many that no, he’s not interested.

Such politicians as former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger and former Gov. Arne Carlson mourn the passing of a broad-based Republican Party. But they — along with Republican-leaning analyst Tom Horner and former Democratic Congressman Tim Penny, who’s now an independent — share the belief that the long campaigns aimed at the fringes of both parties open the door for the Independence Party to enter and prosper.   

GOP won’t endorse ‘centrist’ Ramstad
Given the weariness of many voters toward partisan yapping, there’s no question that someone with a moderate record of a Jim Ramstad would be a formidable opponent.

Jim Ramstad
Jim Ramstad

“He’s exactly the kind of guy most people in the state would say ‘yes’ to,” said Day. “But he knows he can’t get endorsed. That means you have to get into a primary, and that changes everything — especially with Republicans. The one thing I like about Democrats is that they don’t seem to avoid primaries as much as we do. With people like [Mark] Dayton and [Matt] Entenza running, they’re almost sure to have a primary. I don’t think Republicans will.”

What would it take for someone such as Ramstad to win Republican endorsement? 

“An act of God,” said Tom Horner, a former chief of staff for Durenberger and current commentator who still leans to the Republican point of view, but with reservations.

“I haven’t ever left the Republican Party,” he says. “It’s left me. I hear Democrats say the same thing. … We need to retire the word ‘moderate’ as an adjective. It’s not relevant to either the Democrats or the Republicans. Moderate should be used as a noun.”

Dave Durenberger
Dave Durenberger

Durenberger, a Republican moderate from a different era, calls what’s happened “miniaturization” of political thought.

In his party, Durenberger believes it started with Roe v. Wade  (1973) and was entrenched with the Gingrich anti-government revolution (1994). The approach: Find small, wedge issues and rally the troops around them. 

“Narrow the scope,” said Durenberger. “You no longer are looking at a national interest, or a state interest. You’re looking more at party interest.”

Carlson says that he saw this narrowing in Minnesota in the mid-1970s, but in that case, it was two DFL legislators, Mike Menning of Edgerton and Glen Sherwood of Pine River, who first pushed the Christian fundamentalist base to become politically active.

“When they [the fundamentalists] couldn’t find a home in the Democratic Party, they moved to the Republican Party,” said Carlson, noting that both Menning and Sherwood switched parties and made unsuccessful bids to win Republican Party endorsement for governor.

Caucus system works against moderates
It is Minnesota’s heavy emphasis on the caucus system that invites takeover by small but well-organized groups, Carlson says. The caucus system rewards those who show up. (On the left, Paul Wellstone was able to use the caucus system to leap from obscurity to the U.S. Senate. On the right, there has been any number of examples, including Allen Quist, who won endorsement over Carlson, a broadly popular governor outside the party but considered too liberal by GOP activists.)

Now, Ron Paul followers, with a strong anti-government attitude, are moving into the party and mixing in with the social conservatives.

But both the social conservatives and the Paulites operate from narrow perspectives. They may be true believers, Carlson said, but they are easily manipulated by cynics perfectly willing to say what those groups want to hear.

“Notice Tim Pawlenty,” said Carlson, with disdain. The governor, he said, “has incredible flexibility on policy. If he were a running back, he’d been sensational. He’s all over the field.”

Arne Carlson
Arne Carlson

Both Carlson and Durenberger believe narrowness is a greater problem for Republicans than for DFLers. As he watches the Minnesota gubernatorial race unfold, Durenberger has a hard time understanding how “they [Republican candidates] can reach out to the middle from where they’re standing.”

Though most Minnesotans are probably not paying attention yet, the process already is rolling.

Last Thursday, a handful of DFL candidates held an evening debate at the St. Cloud public library. And tonight, all nine of the active Republican candidates are to debate at the Bethesda Church in Prior Lake.

In reality, the Republican field, as it’s shaped now, is more of an echo chamber than the DFL pack. The Republicans all are running to the right of Pawlenty. All are anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-abortion and pro-business.

The DFL field includes several centrists. For certain, Sen. Tom Bakk and Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner fit that definition, and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Rep. Paul Thissen are trying to position themselves more toward the center. Rep. Tom Rukavina is a populist, whose views shift to the left, the right or the center, depending on the issue.

Thissen, a state representative from Minneapolis, could be a dark horse to watch. He insists that the DFL activists he’s talking to aren’t so interested in the old litmus tests — pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-gay marriage, pro-tax the rich — as they are in one thing.

“The thing I keep hearing,” Thissen said, “is that we HAVE to put up somebody who can win.”

Tom Horner
Tom Horner

To date, no Independence Party candidates have stepped forward, although the party’s frequent standard bearer, former U.S. Sen. Dean Barkley, hinted of his interest earlier this month, saying the race “looks pretty damned inviting.”

But, say Horner, Penny, Durenberger and Carlson, the way this race is evolving, this very easily could end up as the year that an IP candidate marches right down the middle and into the governor’s mansion.

Factors align against both DFL and GOP
Here are the main factors that make both parties so uninviting to the vast middle:

1. Neither the Republicans nor the DFLers have anybody resembling a favorite in the race. The Republican field is jammed with unknown state legislators who are pretty much saying the same thing. The DFL field has some better-knowns (several of them with political baggage — former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, state Sen. John Marty, and Kelliher) and a mix of slightly knowns (Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman) and then the unknowns.

Durenberger says the thing that marks both fields is the reality that none of the candidates can say, “Here’s my record of experience and judgment outside of politics.”

2. The length of the campaign forces candidates from both parties to spend inordinate amounts of time dealing with their respective bases.

“You’re playing to that 20 percent on the left or the right for months,” said Horner. “You’re playing to the special interests with the most extreme positions. After Labor Day 2010, how do you suddenly move back to the middle for the rest of the state?”

3. Neither party has distinguished itself in running state government in recent years.

“I think that by the time we get to next fall, there will be considerable awareness of how serious the budget problem is,” said Penny, once an IP gubernatorial candidate. “I think people will understand that the outgoing governor is leaving a huge mess behind, and that will make it difficult for Republicans to say they’re equipped to govern. But the Dems will give the same old canards: ‘Everything we do in government is so important that we can’t cut anything, so we’ll tax the rich.’ Most people in the state will conclude that both parties are out to lunch.”

4. Because both parties could have contested primaries, there’s little likelihood of crossover votes, which were instrumental in propelling Carlson past Quist in 1994. Carlson believes 30 percent of his primary win came from DFLers crossing party lines to vote in the Republican primary. 

Penny, an adviser to the IPs, said he will not run himself.

“But several prominent people have approached the party with an interest in running,” Penny said. “It’s at a stage that I can’t give you names. We’ll wait and see what jells.”

Tim Penny
Tim Penny

But it’s the belief of both Penny and Horner that the ideal IP candidate would be a political outsider, preferably someone reasonably well known for business acumen.

“The best candidate,” said Penny, “would be an outsider who has proven management accomplishments.”

The big advantage the IPs have, both Penny and Horner believe, is that the party doesn’t have to put forward a candidate for months yet while those in the other parties will continue to preach to their respective choirs.

“Most likely, the Republicans and the DFL will end up with candidates who represent the 20 percent on both ends of the spectrum,” said Horner. “The key for the Independence Party would be to have a candidate who isn’t anti-Republican or anti-Democrat. This is a candidate who says, ‘Both parties have some good ideas. What we need is a neutral broker to put the best of the ideas to work.’ “

Carlson and Durenberger agree with that assessment: If the IP activists can find someone from outside the traditional political system — a respected business leader, who doesn’t care what people do in their bedrooms — they have a real chance at victory. 

Penny believes the IP doesn’t need to step forward with a candidate until July, when most Minnesotans first will start paying attention. And it’s likely that most Minnesotans will be looking for a moderate, which recent history has shown will be difficult for either party to deliver.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/28/2009 - 07:04 am.

    The thing that concerns me is that we have the two extremes of both parties and they represent the bases of each party. And what concerns me is that these two extremes are too far apart and that they do not represent where the middle, the majority of the state’s majority resides. The political systems and our information systems give way too much attention to these two extremes and not enough to that middle ground where the majority of us reside.

    There should be no doubt that a credible third party candidate would do well in this next election. Congressman Ramstad at least in my mind would appear to be a outstanding candidate for the Republican party. The party could then position itself and resonate with a larger audience than the narrowly focused “values voter”.

    If the eventual DFL nominee were to move to the middle and be more of a “Bluedog Democrat” Then the DFL would also be in the neighborhood where the middle majority resides. A majority that is ambivalent about government, that believes in personal imitative and knows that we are going to have to pay taxes to make this work.

    As it is, the extremes (party bases) have too much say as to who moves forward in the process.

  2. Submitted by Ross Williams on 09/28/2009 - 08:38 am.

    There is a lot of discussion of how moderate Republicans don’t have any place to go and the Republican Party is dominated by extremists. There is no real evidence that is true of the DFL. Even the candidates for endorsement are mainstream. But if not, is Mark Dayton a left wing radical? I don’t think so.

    As for distinguishing themselves in running government, the last DFL governor was Rudy Perpich. That was 20 years ago. Before Perpich it was Wendy Anderson. And before him was Karl Rolvaag. That is three DFL governors in the last 50 years.

    The other problem with this story is that the IP is the “not” party. They are “not” Democrats and they are “not” Republicans but its not clear what they are. Being “centrist” isn’t a solution.

    Tim Penny has been blathering about budgets and deficits for almost 20 years now. Its not clear that the majority of Minnesotans place all that much importance on the issue. And its not clear the IP as a party does either. Jesse Ventura, the only IP governor, didn’t seem to champion the issue. But then it is doubtful Jesse could get endorsed by today’s IP.

    What is clear is that the IP is a home for moderate Republicans. That home has allowed the extremists who dominate the Republican party to elect governors with a minority of votes. That, in turn, has given them a much larger voice in state government than warranted, creating many of the problems of governance that the IP complains about.

  3. Submitted by Jude Dornisch on 09/28/2009 - 08:50 am.

    Come on now. Just because one party has decided to run a purge of its moderate elements does not move the other party farther to the left.

    This either or view of the current party system is less then honest. The Democrats nationally and the DFL here are hardly pushing major leftist positions. Nor is there any indication that the center of the party has moved towards the left. Humphrey and Hatch are hardly candidates of the extreme left.

    Lets be honest. The IP party is probably the single biggest roadblock to more moderate participation in the parties. By opting out these “Moderates” have removed the “center” from the process. What reason does any party have to move towards the center if it is occupied?

  4. Submitted by Paul Gustafson on 09/28/2009 - 09:10 am.

    Nice piece, Doug.

    What’s up with Ramstad? Is he the Brett Farve of the 2010 gubernatorial race? He hints, he backs off, he hints again, he backs off again.

    Could it be, like Brett, he just doesn’t want to waste time and energy on training camp (meaning a primary race, or a year-long campaign.)

    I’d also like to see someone politically smarter than I talk about the difference between getting 51% of the vote in a two-way race versus getting 34% in a three-way race with a strong candidate third candidate like Ramstad could be.

  5. Submitted by Paul Scott on 09/28/2009 - 09:59 am.

    I agree with Ross. The idea that the DFL is given to endorsing extremists seems like the standard and unpersuasive false equivalency meme. The DFL may be guilty of endorsing charismatically challenged, from time to time, people who often seem unnatural and scripted and who sort of make me wince. Blame it on the policy wonkiness that drives the endorsement process, what with all the various platforms and all. But third parties in MN really need to be credited with the deranged race to the bottom and cynicism unleashed by the Pawlenty era. WIthout the efforts of Penny and later Hutchinson, surely their right, but at the end of the day, a little self-serving, we would not be engaged in the dysfunctional spectacle of which we are all now so familiar.

  6. Submitted by Tom Rees on 09/28/2009 - 10:12 am.

    I do not believe that Mr. Horner ever served in the Minnesota Legislature.

  7. Submitted by Paul Gustafson on 09/28/2009 - 11:36 am.

    The mere suggestion that the DFL may be out of touch in the major state-wide races has hit a nerve here. It should do more than that. It should set off alarm bells.

    Klobuchar has hewed a progressive path. But it’s VERY carefully done in the centrist mode. The overtly liberal statewide DFL winners of recent years – Wellstone and Franken – won by the skin of their teeth.

    Franken was a weak candidate, although I personally like many of his positions. But, it should not have been a close race with Coleman. Just look at the difference between Obama and Franken in the winning percentages. How did that happen?

    And governor’s races? The DFL record speaks for itself. Horrible.

    If that doesn’t get DFLers into self-examining mode,they are delusional. They better get serious about attracting the middle voters. They can’t win it simply by getting the liberal base out.

    Lucky for them, the Minnesota Republican Party is in no better shape – at this point.

    Truth is, however, both parties are ripe for the picking in the 2010 governor’s race if a strong, centrist candidate goes for it.

  8. Submitted by Barbara Miller on 09/28/2009 - 12:05 pm.

    (1) Something different from and better than Blue Dog Democrats is called for. As things now stand, this subset is largely viewed as nothing more than obstructionist. A whole new frame (thank you, Dr. Lakoff) is called for here.

    (2) Trotting out the usual candidates is a lost cause. Think Harold Stassen in latter years. I strongly supported Steve Kelley. His ship has sailed. Ditto Dean Barkley, who now is the poster person for jumping in wherever there’s a possible slot. Ditto Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, I great guy with not enough pizzazz in this media-bonkers society, which is extremely unfortunate.

    (3) If the base at the extreme ends of the spectrum is 20% . . . well, help me do the math . . . . That’s 60% of us, yes/no? Hmmm. Just askin’.

    (4) The caucus system is a travesty. I have been part of it, becoming a delegate in each of the past three cycles. I will not do it again. It’s an insiders’ game and in no way reflects the people’s preferences. But you already know that, don’t you?

    (5) It makes me half nuts to watch the formerly fine Democratic Party dither and dally, which, added to the half that was nuts already. . .well, you know.

    It’s Monday. I’m cranky. Check back with me tomorrow.

  9. Submitted by Howard Miller on 09/28/2009 - 12:25 pm.

    I’m not sure why the IP’s need a business leader for their candidate. I’m not convinced that the skills of people who flourish in a capitalist economic-competitive environment transfer all that well to a political democratic-competitive environment.

    Both Mr. Bush (43d president) and Mr Cheney had business backgrounds; Mr. Bush was the “MBA president” and all that. Yet their policies and methods during their federal public service showed contempt for democratic governance in my view, and were not good for our country in effect and results.

  10. Submitted by Ross Williams on 09/28/2009 - 01:45 pm.

    (3) If the base at the extreme ends of the spectrum is 20% . . . well, help me do the math . . . . That’s 60% of us, yes/no? Hmmm. Just askin’.”

    If the base is even 30% on each side the rest is 40% and I suspect that 30% is a conservative number for the base. Not many candidates get over 60% of the vote without cutting into their opposition’s core support. Think Reagan Democrats.

    “Both Mr. Bush (43d president) and Mr Cheney had business backgrounds; ”

    Not really. They both used their political connections to land government contracts/benefits for their employers. I am not sure that is a “business background.”

  11. Submitted by Don Effenberger on 09/28/2009 - 01:52 pm.

    Mr. Rees (Comment #6) is right. We’ve corrected that error.

  12. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/28/2009 - 03:37 pm.

    Why do Penny and other IPs think someone with business management experience can govern better than someone with experience in government? Is applying the for-profit model to non-profit activities useful or beneficial? If so, why?

    What will the Republican candidates debate about? I hate taxes more than you? I’ll cut off more poor people from health care? I’ll starve the cities and counties and then blame them for having to raise property taxes more eagerly than you?

    Why is it considered “extreme” to want single-payer health care for all and for government to be FOR the people, just as Constitution says it should be? And why is a Blue Dog whose positions on many matters are pretty far to the right considered “moderate?”

  13. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 09/28/2009 - 04:00 pm.

    ‘Is this all there is?…”

    I do wonder if Grow is pulling a spoof here…and this story is actually preemptive script for another Coen Brothers film…”IS THAT ALL THERE IS?”

  14. Submitted by Tim Nelson on 09/28/2009 - 04:29 pm.

    I love all the comments so far, and commend Doug Grow for a fine column.

    Good luck to the candidate with an answer or two.

  15. Submitted by George Carlson on 09/28/2009 - 05:08 pm.

    Penny and Horner believe that the ideal middle of the road candidate would be a political outsider with proven business/management accomplishments. How about a former Republican political leader who has been out of politics for long enough to be an outsider (and who would probably have nothing to do with today’s Republican party).

    I’m thinking of David Jennings, one-time Republican House leader with business experience and lately a school administrator. He knows politics, has business experience and has lately been a leader in the area most important to Minnesota’s future, education.

    He is smart and charismatic. He can relate to and appeal to the rural areas of the state from his experience as a legislator from SW Minnesota. He has been exposed to and can relate to suburban and Minneapolis perspectives from his work in the Minneapolis and Chaska/Chanhassen schools.

    I recall recently reading that he was thinking of trying something new; something other than school administration. He should consider the governors race. He could bring Minnesotans together; he would be the anti-Pawlenty

  16. Submitted by William Lindeke on 09/28/2009 - 10:19 pm.

    Wow, I’ve never heard that before. Not since the last two guv elections, anyway.

    I’ve long thought that 3rd parties have to build from the bottom up, in local and legislative races, before they try to topple the system statewide. Doesn’t it make more sense?

  17. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 09/29/2009 - 12:03 am.

    It’s a depressing story Grow has documented here as analyzed by the attendant veteran political voices…voices that essntially say strategy defines policy and strategy-to-win means keep in the middle of the road.

    Moderation becomes the Winner-god for either major party and if a third party wants to win, it would have to run down the middle aisle.

    That is the reality? Well, sounds like we’re stuck in political purgatory where candidate hopefuls whatever their initial ideas; policies they may want to bring to the table…in order to win, dare not stray but cling too, to the center?

    And that pretty much sums up the state of determinism by veteran political voices interviewed, who speak from experience to be sure. And certainly one can assume they took their own advice and kept their own hands clean in order to win?

    There has to be more to the political scene or what’s the point? Somewhere along the way Minnesota may have lost something. Try hope for starters…way to go, eh?

  18. Submitted by Roann Cramer on 09/29/2009 - 11:15 am.

    We could avoid winners that do not have support of the majority of the voters by implementing Ranked Choice Voting (also known as Instant Runoff Voting) as the method to elect our governor. This would provide us with additional benefits of having issues focused campaigns and no expensive and low turnout primary. I think that better campaigns would help us elect more effective representation.

    The MN GOP is using a version of Ranked Choice Voting this weekend at their straw poll. They are limiting choices to only two candidates. Although some in the GOP have not supported this election reform, they are beginning to see the advantage of overall consensus.

    The facts show that Minnesota has 6 active political parties (including the Constitution, Libertarians, Greens, Independence Party along with the DFL and GOP). Broader voter participation and discussion in the election cycle is the best way to get better government.

  19. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 09/29/2009 - 01:44 pm.

    An issue-based forum with DFL gubernatorial candidates will be held during National Veterans Awareness Week to discuss the policy issues relevant to military veterans, families and survivors. Sponsored by the DFL Veterans Caucus with Senate District 61 DFL, the event will be held Saturday, 14 November 2009 from 2 – 4 PM at the Center for Changing Lives at 2400 Park Avenue in Minneapolis, an accessible venue. Eight candidates have accepted the invitation to participate.

    The event is free and open to the public. People can RSVP on the Facebook Group page at: http://www.facebook.com/events.php?oid=60034703513&vm=all

  20. Submitted by Ray Schmitz on 09/29/2009 - 02:50 pm.

    Good analysis, the problem is that the IP does not have a real organization on which to field a candidate.

  21. Submitted by Ray Schmitz on 09/29/2009 - 02:57 pm.

    Hit the send accidentally, Complete thought.

    Candidate who could also bring along a dozen IP senators and house members who would be able to support her agenda.

  22. Submitted by Paul Gustafson on 09/30/2009 - 10:39 am.

    People should not assume that a strong third candidate for governor has to come from the IP Party.

    A Ramstad – and I think there are others – would not need to run under ANY party banner. In fact, I think a non-party candidate would have a great appeal.

    Ordinary people were pretty disgusted by the grid-lock in the last session of the Legislature-Governor squabble. Partisans can assign blame to the other side all they want. But it did not make either DFLers or Republicans look good to a lot of voters.

    But, in particular, I think Ramstad has the name-recognition, access to money (think Lake Minnetonka) and track record in Congress that would appeal to a lot of people. Like 34% of the voters, at least.

    Especially if the two major parties put up “The Usual Suspects” as their candidates.

  23. Submitted by Bruce Pomerantz on 10/02/2009 - 10:41 pm.

    Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff election, would make Doug’s commentary unnecessary. By having everyone run in the general election, the moderates would have an opportunity to appear to the majority middle-roaders. Third and fourth parties would also be able to evaluate their true popularity.

    Minneapolis will vote this way in November. St. Paul residents will vote in November on whether to institute ranked-choice voting.

    Volunteer to help make this a statewide voting method.

  24. Submitted by John Olson on 10/04/2009 - 06:30 am.

    I’m in agreement with others in a number of key areas:

    – get rid of the caucuses. When this is done, both parties will be forced more towards the center since the insiders won’t be able to corral and control the process. Most voters lie somewhere between where the party apparatchiks reside at their respective ends.

    – Dean Barkley drags down the IPs.

    – Haven’t we already learned that a charismatic person (one J. Ventura) got himself elected because a significant slice of Minnesotans were turned off to the usual suspects?

    – I agree completely that Ramstad could run on the “no name” ticket and squash both the Republican and DFL candidate for Governor if he chose to run.

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