Today was a very good day for Tom Horner in the pages of the Sunday Star Tribune, the state’s largest newspaper.
For starters, there was a prominently played, virtual editorial endorsement of the Independence Party’s gubernatorial candidate. That editorial may not translate directly to Horner votes, according to Dean Barkley, who was chairman of Jesse Ventura’s 1998 independent campaign, but it could help do something nearly as important: It could open more checkbooks.
The near-endorsement of Horner didn’t seem to come as a surprise to either DFLers or Republicans. The newspaper has been leaning toward Horner since shortly after the Aug. 10 primary, those associated with the campaigns of DFLer Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer said.
But it was a different story in a different section of the newspaper, combined with the editorial, that raised the hackles of Tony Sutton, chairman of the state’s Republican Party. On the front page of Sunday’s Strib, the news story there had to be seen as a positive by Horner supporters.
“GOP hasn’t locked down business vote,’’ the headline of that news story read. The subhead: “Some business leaders unsure about Emmer are taking a closer look at Horner.’’
A conspiracy? Strib says no
“I’ve never believed in the conspiracies about the paper that many conservatives believe – until now,” Sutton said in an interview.
The conspiracy theory is that the historic “liberal” bent of the editorial department is reflected in the paper’s news columns.
“I’ve always thought the paper’s news reporters tried to be objective,” Sutton said.
In fact, though he disagreed with the premise of the news story about business leaders being reluctant to support Emmer, he didn’t question the journalistic integrity of the story.
But again, it was that combo package — the big, bold, unusual near-endorsement and the front-page story — that angered Sutton. It seemed to him like “a Hearstian effort to make Horner seem viable.”
Nancy Barnes, the executive editor of the Star Tribune, was quick to deny there was any sort of teaming up of newsroom and editorial department decision-making. In fact, she said, the news story, several weeks in the making, originally had been scheduled to run a week earlier.
“But I held it from last Sunday’s paper [Sept. 5] because I wanted more reporting done, she said in an interview.
The reporter, Baird Helgeson, did do more reporting, and the subsequent story passed muster with Barnes. She and the Strib’s managing editor, Rene Sanchez, then scheduled the story to run today.
It wasn’t until late Friday, Barnes said, that she learned that the editorial department was planning the Horner editorial. She learned about it then, she said, only because the editorial department wants to make sure that its columns and editorials are clearly labeled when they go up on the newspaper’s website.
Once Barnes did learn of the editorial, she said she and Sanchez talked about whether the news story should be withheld from the newspaper.
“But we decided we had to stick with our belief in the separation of church and state [news and editorial],” she said.
The only way to honestly do that, she said, was to go ahead and run the news story.
“There’s no conspiracy,” she said, “but I do understand how some people would feel that way.”
She said she hopes to have a conversation with Sutton to explain what happened.
Could this be a game-changer?
The big question in all of this is whether the Strib’s near-endorsement is a “game changer’’ in terms of this race: Is this the sort of push Horner needs to get him above the 13 percent mark, which is where he stood in the most recent polls.
Not surprisingly, Sutton said, “Absolutely not.”
He said that the Star Tribune editorial board is rallying around Horner only because “Mark Dayton is a deeply flawed candidate who cannot win.”
Sutton mocked the Stib’s editorial board’s fascination with Horner.
“He’s their perfect candidate,” Sutton said. “He’s a milquetoast policy wonk who couldn’t lead himself out of a paper bag.”
The editorial — and news story — he predicted will do nothing but strengthen support around Emmer.
The Dayton campaign shrugged off the editorial as “too bad” but “no surprise.”
On Esme Murphy’s Sunday morning interview show on WCCO-TV, Dayton said that the Strib is trying to protect its corporate advertisers by endorsing Horner.
“He’s a corporate Republican,” Dayton said of Horner. “Emmer’s an extreme Republican. I’m a Democrat.”
Barkley, the father of the modern Minnesota third-party movement and Ventura’s campaign manager in 1998, said newspaper endorsements no longer have the power to swing votes, if they ever did.
Maybe instead a ‘field-leveler’
But if not a game-changer, the Sunday splash could be more of a field-leveler.
“When you’re the third peg in the wheel, such a huge editorial has to help nudge some of those undecideds into believing he can win,” Barkley said. “It will help him crack into that Republican money. If Horner gets that $2.5 million he says he needs, you never know what will happen.”
Barkley, it should be noted, is a Horner supporter but is not actively working on the IP candidate’s campaign.
To back up for a moment, today’s Strib featured a long editorial that offered considerable praise of Horner.
“It’s too soon for us to recommend one candidate for governor,” the editorial read. “But after watching a full month of general-election campaigning, we’re issuing a challenge to moderate Minnesota voters seeking a break from polarization. A genuine three-way race is on. Independence Party candidate Tom Horner ranks as a serious contender, and he deserves full consideration by Minnesotans who in more ordinary times might not look at a third-party candidate. “
The editorial was placed at the top of the front page of the weekly Opinion Exchange editorial section and was accompanied by a photograph of a smiling Horner. The editorial noted that this placement wasn’t “typical.”
“Extraordinary times warrant a break with usual patterns,’’ the Strib editorial said of the placement of the glowing editorial.
Ventura never received such positive press, Barkley noted.
“At this point in the campaign [of 1998)] Skip Humphrey [the DFL candidate] was at about 48 percent and Jesse was at about 10 percent and getting a little coverage, but nothing substantial,” Barkley said. “He started to get decent mentions in stories when he did well in the debates.”
Today’s near-endorsement, Barkley said, won’t have much impact on the demographic that pushed Ventura over the top — young men who loved the Ventura persona. Horner is in no way the big, macho personality that Ventura was, and he won’t likely attract large numbers of Ventura’s more rowdy followers, he acknowledged.
“They aren’t reading Star Tribune editorials on Sunday morning,” Barkley said, laughing. “They’re recovering from hangovers.’’
Different factors from Ventura’s 1998 surprise win
But the circumstances in this election are far different from 1998.
“It’s such a different scenario,” Barkley said. “The Emmer-Dayton schism is so big. The polls show there is a huge pool of undecideds. He [Horner] doesn’t need the big personality.”
What he needs is to build his name recognition [which Ventura never had to do] and prove to the political middle that he’s viable. To do that, he needs money for advertising.
Already, there has been some of the old Republican money coming into Horner’s campaign. Even before the big Sunday Star Tribune double hit, some of that money was moving to the middle.
“I was having a drink with someone the other night who was showing me a couple of invitations to Horner fundraisers that are going to be held by people who haven’t supported the [IP] party in the past,’’ Barkley said. “The people who read this editorial are the people who write checks.”
Not surprisingly, the Horner campaign was quick to capitalize on the positive press in the Star Tribune. The campaign cranked out a release — sent to statewide media — highlighting the positive comments in the Strib editorial and the news story. It also used the release to highlight other positive comments Horner’s stances have received in articles in other media outlets around the state.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.