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Quick, harsh GOP response may mean Arne Carlson endorsement of Tom Horner is serious political move

Oh, what a good day to be a member of the Independence Party: A glowing Sunday editorial in the state’s largest newspaper. Today, an important endorsement from a much-respected political figure.

Arne Carlson and Tom Horner today embarked on a three-stop endorsement tour.
Arne Carlson and Tom Horner today embarked on a three-stop endorsement tour.

Judging by today’s quick — and harsh — response from the state’s Republican Party, Arne Carlson’s endorsement of Tom Horner for governor is serious political business.

Tony Sutton, the Republican Party’s chairman, was quick to lash out at both Carlson, a former Republican governor, and Horner, a lifelong Republican.

The state party wrote off both men as, gasp, “Obama supporters.”

DFLers have seemed more sanguine about Carlson’s entry into the fray.

Lots of smiles today
Both Carlson and Horner were enjoying the GOP attention.

“What would they be saying if I had endorsed Tom Emmer?” Carlson said, a big smile on his face. “They would have been saying I was the best governor in the state’s history — and the best-looking, too.”

Those angry words from Sutton and the state party define the problem the state faces, Carlson said.

“Of course I’m a Republican,” Carlson said at a news conference on the steps of the Capitol this noon. “I came into a party that was moderate, a party that was concerned with fiscal issues. I came into a party that asked the question: Is this the responsibility of government; if not, get out of it.”

The party of today?

“It spends more time worrying about the bedroom and not the boardroom,” Carlson said.

A crowd of Horner supporters cheered excitedly.

Oh, what a good day it was to be a member of the Independence Party: A glowing Sunday editorial in the state’s largest newspaper. Today, an important endorsement from a much-respected political figure.

Access to a new audience
The endorsement of Carlson, Horner said, allows him “to speak to a whole new audience.”

Horner’s belief is that most Minnesotans feel abandoned by their respective parties. Perhaps no political figure represents the middle so clearly as Carlson.

Again, judging by the reactions, it appears the Republican Party is concerned that Carlson will help Horner take more votes away from the GOP than he will from the DFL and Mark Dayton.

But before Carlson and Horner arrived at the Capitol from their small rally in Rochester, Jim Mulder, Horner’s running mate, said he believes that Carlson will help the IPs pick off at least as many unhappy DFLers as Republicans.

Jim Mulder
Jim Mulder

“When movement starts to happen in either party, it’s going to come to us,” Mulder said confidently.

What’s happening around Horner’s campaign does feel a whole lot like momentum, though obviously the next round of polls could blow a big hole in any momentum balloon.

Still, if Horner is gaining viability, that might force Dayton and Emmer to become even more devoted to their bases.

At this point, for example, there is little evidence that Dayton has created much excitement in a vital area for DFLers, the inner cities.

During the DFL primary, only Matt Entenza worked the inner cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis hard. If Horner’s reach is growing, Dayton will need every traditional DFL inner city vote. (An expected visit by President Obama might help create some enthusiasm for Dayton among inner-city voters.)

Meantime, Emmer faces an even trickier bit of business. If Horner is gaining from the right side of the middle, Emmer may have to spend some time making sure those social conservatives get out to vote on Nov. 2.

Gay marriage issue surfaces today, too
On the day that Horner was traveling with Carlson from Rochester to St. Paul to St. Cloud, Tom Prichard, president of the conservative Minnesota Family Council, was holding a news conference of his own on gay marriage.

Prichard was touting a poll that he says shows that Minnesotans favor a constitutional amendment “protecting marriage” as an institution between a man and a woman.

“The poll points out that Minnesotans strongly support marriage between one man and one woman, letting the people vote on a constitutional amendment, and gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer because he’s the only gubernatorial candidate who supports marriage,” he said.

Prichard vows that his organization will start raising those issues in television ads.

That prospect can’t be particularly good for Emmer, who must appeal to a broad range of suburbanites.

All of this brings us back to Carlson and the viability he helps bring to Horner, who, on paper, is the consummate suburban candidate.

Laughing — he was laughing a lot today — Horner pointed out that governors seem very in these days: The Republicans are bringing Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindahl to Minnesota to help Emmer. DFLers have Bill Clinton, a former governor, coming Tuesday to help Dayton, Horner noted.

“I have the former governor who speaks to Minnesota,” he said.

Carlson is a unique supporter.

The ‘new’ Arne Carlson
Those who worked closely — or tried to work closely — with Carlson when he was governor knew him as cranky on his best days. At one time or another, he offended just about everyone around the Capitol.

But Minnesotans who didn’t have to work with him tended to like him as a leader.

And since leaving office, he’s become almost the beloved grandpa of Minnesota politics. He’s stayed visible, even a dozen years after leaving office, by appearing on everything from sports talk shows (he’s a huge fan) to public radio policy discussions.

He’s also become more socially progressive. These days, even DFLer legislators have revisionist histories of Carlson. After eight years of Tim Pawlenty, they often talk about how they enjoyed working with him when he was governor.

It’s a good bet that Carlson will be motivated to work reasonably hard — though it should be remembered the guy is nearly 76 years old — for Horner. Not only does he seem to believe in Horner’s centrist message but he surely holds a grudge toward the party that rejected him even when he was governor.

Carlson, of course, says all of us should put party politics aside.

“This election is not about party — it’s about loyalty to the long-term good of Minnesota,” Carlson said repeatedly.

He says he’s disgusted with his old party because rather than deal with fiscal problems, “it has kicked the can down the road” for the next generation to deal with.

But it’s not just policy, it’s personal: He would enjoy nothing more than giving the conservative wing of the party, which has been in control for years, a big boot.

Carlson was clearly excited about being in the limelight again.

“Once Minnesotans start paying attention, it’s a guaranteed landslide for this gentleman,” Carlson said, nodding to Horner.

Hmmm. Landslide may be a little over the top, but surely Carlson’s support helps move Horner ever closer to viability.

From the time he began to think about entering the campaign, Horner has been working to bring Carlson into the fold.

“We talked all the way along,” Horner said. “I’d call to ask him advice.”

It was two weeks ago, Horner said, that Carlson said he was ready to endorse. Horner waited to spring the announcement for this moment, presumably because polls have shown that there’s great voter restlessness over both Emmer and Dayton.

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