It was Monday night, the final crisp night of the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. The buses were due any minute at Midway Stadium.
Tom Horner, the Independence Party candidate, was finishing up a grueling day-long, statewide bus tour that was to culminate in a rally at the Saints’ ballpark in St. Paul.
His arrival was timed for the biggest — and last — “earned media” opportunity of his campaign, the final 10 o’clock news shows before voters went to the polls.
But Horner campaign manager Stephen Imholte and media staffer Bill Crum, on site to manage the event, had a problem on their hands, a visual and an organizational problem.
There wasn’t a supporter to be found in the minor league stadium’s grandstand. Not a one. The lights were on, but no one was home.
The 18-year-old Independence Party — run by dedicated volunteers, funded by a few zeroes of cash, not the seven-digit zeroes of the DFL and Republicans — was striving this time ’round to become a serious option for Minnesota’s voters, a winning option.
But not only couldn’t it fill this minor league stadium, it couldn’t deliver any more bodies to this “rally” than those already on the campaign buses that were now headed down Energy Park Drive.
So, Imholte and Crum quickly altered the staging, moving the lectern that once stood at home plate inside the stadium to the parking lot outside where the “live at 10” cameras found about 120 Horner backers chanting and waving signs. Horner and running mate Jim Mulder were quickly framed by the entrance to the stadium, not the shiny, empty bleachers.
“Absolutely, there should have been more people,” said Jack Uldrich, chairman of the Minnesota Independence Party. “There should have been. We know we have a lot of work to do.”
But, now, with Horner’s campaign instant history with 12 percent of the votes, the question that he and the party face is this: Will there ever be an IP rally that fills a stadium or arena?
While it has consistently retained its “major party status” on the strength of gaining at least 5 percent of voters in a statewide race — and while IP candidate Jesse Ventura won the governorship in 1998 with 38 percent of the vote — can the IP burst out of its tiny silo?
Horner got just about every newspaper endorsement in the state, generally positive media coverage and was a participant in nearly 30 debates with Mark Dayton and Tom Emmer. But 12 percent is all Tom Horner could muster, although 246,000 votes is nothing to sneeze at.
And it could be argued now that Horner’s presence in 2010 and IP Senate candidate Dean Barkley’s 16 percent in 2008 forced two recounts in two major elections that showed just how divided and polarized Minnesota’s electorate is.
Add in Ventura’s 1998 victory and Tim Penny’s solid 16 percent in 2002 against Tim Pawlenty and Roger Moe and you’ve got a legitimate force here.
But this year, this seemed to be THE year for the IP, what with the well-spoken Horner and polls showing lukewarm feelings for both big-party candidates among their traditional bases. And the IP’s fiscally moderate, socially progressive platform.
“It was a good path,” Penny said of Horner’s position between Dayton and Emmer in a year of voter disaffection with incumbents and professional politicians. But while Horner was known by some business leaders and political insiders, he wasn’t a household name, like Ventura or even Penny when they ran.
Said Uldrich: “I don’t think the stars could have aligned any better for us than they did this year. We had Dayton to the left and Emmer to the far right. Tom [Horner] was perfectly positioned. We would have loved to have given him more support.”
But the party apparatus and treasury has barely grown, with Uldrich allowing that there are today about 5,000 Minnesotans who consider themselves IPers, with about 500 statewide activists.
Former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, who endorsed Horner and was among the Midway Stadium assembled, said, in his view, the IP isn’t really a party like the DFL and Republicans, but rather merely “a vehicle” for candidates and to bring “more moderate or sensible people together.”
Former Gov. Arne Carlson told MinnPost contributing journalist David Gillette Tuesday night, “There is no IP Party, really. We’ve been too generous on that.”
When Horner became the IP candidate, Uldrich told him that the party’s standing afforded him “a platform that [will make you] one of the three in the debate.”
And, of course, the critical access to hundreds of thousands of dollars in public campaign financing because of the IP’s major-party status.
While the IP ran an extensive slate of candidates, even those that Uldrich and other party faithful thought might do well in legislative races, didn’t. The IP ran seven state Senate candidates and 10 House candidates. Of those 27 challengers, two scored higher percentages in their races than Horner did in his. The rest were in single digits.
“It needs to be more focused,” Carlson said of the IP.
“The Independence Party isn’t going away,” said Penny. “It’s a serious party. It deserves a place in our state’s politics.”
Organization is clearly one factor. Last weekend, Horner campaign manager Imholte said that the IP made about 150,000 get-out-the-vote phone calls; 100,000 of those had to be made by paid callers, not volunteers.
During the campaign, Horner raised about $1 million. The IP’s major-party status did allow Horner’s campaign to get about $350,000 in state public campaign financing; that was a major gift from the IP, even if a legitimate “ground game” of door-knocking and get-out-the-vote efforts were difficult.
Emmer raised about $3 million and Dayton more than $4.5 million. The central committees of their more established and branded parties gave each of them about $600,000.
Other than access to the public financing, the IP gave Horner about $15,000. Emmer, Dayton and their independent-expenditure pals carpet-bombed Horner’s lesser TV commercial presence and, at times, went after Horner in their commercials.
Still, as Horner gained some momentum with the business community and disaffected leaners of both parties, the same old message came from Dayton and Emmer: A vote for Horner and the IP is a “wasted vote.” Republican Party Chairman Tony Sutton called former GOP lawmakers who went for Horner “quislings,” an insult of traitorous proportions.
That’s why the future of the IP is linked to many strategies, but none so powerful as the statewide introduction of Ranked Choice Voting.
For sure, Uldrich said, the IP needs to hire a full-time party executive director. For now, there has not been one because the IP hasn’t had the sustaining funding to hire one.
For sure, as Penny points out, there is a marketing problem. The other two major parties have a two-century headstart on the IP, and every kid grows up learning about and “conditioned to believe” in the two-party system.
Said Penny: “It leads to 20 percent of the electorate being prepared to vote for any Democrat even if they’re a dud and 20 percent voting for any Republican even if they’re a dolt … Every Independence candidate has to build from the ground up.”
In interviews with key IP officers and new backers — such as Durenberger — all mention the need for the IP to work with FairVote Minnesota to promote statewide Ranked Choice Voting. It would tackle head-on the notion that a vote for an IP candidate is a thrown-away vote.
Horner and his backers say there was an element of “fear” generated by both Emmer’s and Dayton’s camp that a vote for Horner was going to help the “other guy” win the election.
Voters who feared Emmer, but weren’t sold on Dayton, still cast their vote for Dayton, the theory goes, because they were concerned a vote for Horner would be one taken away from Dayton.
Said Uldrich: “I’m tired of people saying, ‘Who does the IP candidate take votes from?’ The system takes votes from us. We have a winner-takes-all system. If we change that, suddenly you’ll see our candidates polling better and be more competitive.”
With Ranked Choice Voting, a Horner supporter could have placed the IP candidate first and then Dayton or Emmer second. If Horner’s first-place rankings didn’t add up to be on the top of the “standings,” then that second-choice for Dayton or Emmer would take effect.
RCV is in place in Minneapolis in some races and will be used in St. Paul next year. FairVote Minnesota Executive Director Jeanne Massey said she is working with both the IP and DFL to get a system in place statewide by 2018 when voting machines can be adapted for the system.
With RCV in Minneapolis, Uldrich said: “We as a party have to find in three years a good candidate for mayor and for city council and become the second party in Minneapolis. It’s a one-party town. The Republicans don’t exist. We have a huge opportunity for the Independence Party. If we don’t capitalize on that in the next three years, we deserve to go away. And you can quote me on that.”
Penny also believes the IP should become “a virtual party” and forget about the accoutrements of the old-line parties.
Said Penny: “To the degree to which we structure the IP so it looks like the other two parties, we’re playing by the wrong rules.”
Conventions online, more webinar-like? More commitment to databases? Politics aside, Penny said, the IP needs to be more like MoveOn.org. “More user friendly,” said Penny.”
There is also an effort to nationalize the party, with IP director Michael Burger of Mankato a proponent. Burger is working with Independent Party groups and similar parties in more than 20 other states.
The Horner effect
“What we need, too, is for Tom and his supporters to stay involved,” said Uldrich.
Peter Hutchinson, the 2006 candidate, didn’t stay involved. But Ventura and Penny and Horner have provided some glue for new IP supporters. Tuesday night, Horner seemed ready to explore building the party and surely the RCV effort.
“There are so many people who have talked to me about the base we’ve built,’’ said Horner. “What form that takes, I don’t know … There are a lot of things we can do.”
So now, once again, after an election in which it was a player and a factor but still a distance third, the Independence Party needs to throw off its “wasted” label, choose its path and make some headway.
Said Penny: “With each passing election cycle, we increase the number of folks who have found in our candidates the message they are looking for.”