In his dreams, Tom Horner would be facing Republican Tom Emmer and DFLer Mark Dayton for governor this fall.
Horner is the leading Independence Party candidate for governor, though his spot on the November ballot still is not a certainty. He believes the philosophies of Dayton (“tax the rich”) and Emmer (“whack government”) represent the extremes of the two major parties.
He, of course, sees himself in the wide political middle.
First, Horner, a lifelong Republican, must get through the IP convention in two weeks and, likely, a primary race in August. At this point, though Horner is expected to win party endorsement, at least two other candidates, Rob Hahn and John Uldrich, are expected to run in the primary against Horner. Both are interesting characters.
Hahn, a political novice, is the head of Hahn Publications in St. Paul and is writing a novel about an independent candidate running for governor. In real life, he’s a fiscal conservative who favors such things as racinos and riverboat gambling to help get the state’s fiscal house in order.
Uldrich is the father of the IP’s chairman, Jack Uldrich. His entrance into the race in January caused his son some embarrassment. The party chair was surprised by his father’s entrance into the race in January and responded to it with a message to IP activists:
“As a citizen of Minnesota my father is, of course, free to file for public office and normally, as party chair, I would remain neutral in his candidacy,” the younger Uldrich wrote in January. “Given the circumstances, however, I feel compelled to state that under no circumstances am I — or will I be — supportive of his candidacy.”
With IP’s very independent members, no guarantees for Horner
Given that Independence Party members are, well, independent, there are no absolute guarantees Horner will be the party’s candidate. But he’s running a campaign clearly aimed at building a base for November. That base, he hopes, will come from moderate Republicans and DFLers, who feel their respective gubernatorial candidates are too extreme and will guarantee only four more years of gridlock.
In raw numbers, Horner believes that his base must account for roughly 800,000 people, or 37 percent of the vote on election day.
“They exist,” said Horner. “The question is: Can I reach them with the budget I will have?”
The big task he will face is convincing those 800,000 people that their votes will not be wasted by voting for the Independence Party candidate.
Four years ago, Peter Hutchinson, an undeniably bright and thoughtful guy, couldn’t even come close to persuading Minnesotans to move the IP’s way. He picked up only 6 percent of the vote.
But Horner believes Hutchinson was facing a tougher situation than what he is dealing with now.
“He’s one of the brightest guys in Minnesota,” said Horner, “but he was going against two skilled politicians [incumbent Gov. Tim Pawlenty and DFLer Mike Hatch]. There were almost no debates. The lines [between the GOP and DFL] were drawn. There was just no oxygen left. Now, both parties are in a different situation. … I have to go out and make the case that voters don’t have to choose between the lesser of two evils. If they’re willing to be flexible, I win.”
For Horner, the key to being seen as a viable candidate is to receive the early support of political names far more familiar to Minnesotans than his is.
The big score so far is former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger. At some point soon, Durenberger, for whom Horner once was a staffer, is expected to endorse Horner. Already, though, Durenberger has written letters of support on Horner’s behalf and has set up a number of meetings for Horner with moderate Republicans and business leaders.
He’s emphasizing bringing divergent views together
Horner’s spiel to them emphasizes that he can bring divergent groups together to create positive government results.
“The way forward is not to rail against government,” he says. “It’s to fix Minnesota.”
His fixing ideas lean to fiscally conservative, though he repeatedly says his strength as governor would be his willingness to accept the best ideas from both sides of the political aisle.
“There’s got to be an alternative to what we have now,” he says. “What we have is a choice between extremes. On one side [the Republican cut approach], the most vulnerable are punished. On the other [the DFL], the people who have been most successful are punished. … We have a lot of very bright, very creative people in Minnesota, who can find a better way.”
In his vision, he would be the moderator of ideas, unencumbered by hard-line party positions. It’s a posture that irritates his opponents.
“You have to believe in something,” an irritated House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, now the DFL-endorsed candidate, said at an earlier forum that included a cross section of Minnesota gubernatorial candidates. “How else do voters know who you are?”
Horner laughs at the notion that he is a man with no beliefs.
“I’m just not appealing to idealogues,” he said. “We’re not going to fix government with either cuts or tax increases. Not every government program deserves a permanent place. Some have to go.”
He said he is running for a couple of reasons:
• One, his Republican Party no longer exists. It has been taken over by extremists from the right, he argues.
• Two, he says he wants Minnesota children of today to enjoy the same advantages he had growing up. His administration would focus on early childhood education and K-12 education. He thinks a moderate governor can help invest in those priorities by attracting the private sector and nonprofits to the table.
Horner knows his way around Minnesota politics
Horner has not run for office before but certainly knows his way around Minnesota politics. And he understands the political middle.
He was a staffer for Durenberger, when he met his future bride, who was a staffer for the offices of both Sens. Hubert and Muriel Humphrey. He and a former GOP state legislator, John Himle, founded a public relations/public affairs office that has advised political people and organizations of all persuasions. For years, he was the generally understated Republican political commentator for Minnesota Public Radio.
The decision to run as an IP candidate came after a chance meeting last summer with the party chair, Jack Uldrich.
“How you coming on recruiting a candidate?” Horner asked him.
“We have some interesting people who have expressed interest,” Uldrich said, adding, “Would you be interested?”
Horner didn’t dismiss the idea out of hand. Instead, he had conversations with a number of people, including former IP gubernatorial candidates Hutchinson and Tim Penny. He talked with his mentor, Durenberger.
“I’m not a neophyte,” Horner said. “I understand what the party could and couldn’t do.”
What the party can’t do is offer much in the way of infrastructure or financial support. But what it can offer is a platform “based on principles and values” that doesn’t tie a candidate to tight positions on relatively minor issues. It also still has a number of “passionate” supporters.
Likely, some of the early-era IP supporters have drifted off to the Tea Party movement, Horner admits. But he believes that’s more than made up for by moderate Republicans who are discovering a new political home.
Horner says there’s one other thing the IP supporters offer:
“The first two years of Jesse Ventura’s administration were extremely successful,” Horner says. “He appointed the best administration Minnesota ever has had and gave the people he appointed the latitude to do their jobs.”
The second half of his term?
“That became more about his personal antics,” Horner said.
He likely will be seeking Ventura’s endorsement, but for now, his push is to attract the backing of more traditional supporters, those people who live in the middle of the political spectrum.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.