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Is the party over for the Independence Party?

Over the last two decades, the IP has seen some grand times and some lean times. But never have things been so grim as now.

MinnPost photo illustration by Corey Anderson

More than ever it looks as if it’s time to place an “R” in front of the “IP’’ in Minnesota politics, as in RIP Independence Party. 

It’s been 22 years since Ross Perot, nationally, and Dean Barkley, in Minnesota, breathed life into the concept of a major third party movement. In 1992, Perot won 19 per cent of the vote in his presidential race against Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, the most a third party presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt’s run in 1912. In Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District, Barkley, an unknown, received 16 per cent of the vote in a race that saw Republican Rod Grams defeat DFL incumbent Gerry Sikorski.

Since those eyebrow-raising beginnings, there have been some grand times for the IP (Jesse Ventura’s victory over Norm Coleman and Skip Humphrey in 1998), and some lean times (Peter Hutchinson, a serious man, won just six per cent of the vote in 2006).

But never have things been so grim as the present.

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The Independence Party has a gubernatorial candidate (Hannah Nicollet) who has almost zero name recognition and was unable to clear the barrier that would have made her eligible to receive vitally important public campaign subsidy. Under qualification rules, Nicollet would have needed to show that she had the support of at least 700 people donating $50 or more to her campaign. She didn’t have half that total when she hit the July deadline, meaning she is not eligible for more than $200,000 in public support. 

And the bad news keeps on coming.

The IP’s gubernatorial candidate of four years ago, Tom Horner, who collected tons of impressive endorsements from pols and the media but won just 12 per cent of the vote, announced this week he’s supporting Jeff Johnson, the GOP’s candidate. 

Beyond that, the party has disavowed U.S. Senate candidate Steve Carlson, a Tea Partier who defeated the IP’s endorsed candidate, Kevin Terrell, in a low-turnout primary. The party had high hopes that the thoughtful Terrell would actually turn heads — or at least five per cent of the heads — in the U.S. Senate race.

Most damning of all is the reality that in the 22 years since Perot/Barkley, the party still has not been able to create a meaningful infrastructure. The DFL and GOP are built around precinct-level organizations. The IP remains, in essence, a loosely formed group of people who like to point out how inept DFL and Republican pols are — but have never have really done anything to organize at the local level. 

Oldtimers in the party admit that the one golden opportunity for party building — when Ventura was governor — was lost because Ventura was far more interested in building himself, not the party.

Former candidate Tom Horner likely to join Johnson campaign for governor
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Tom Horner

Interestingly, the IP has failed to mature despite the fact that public has never been more disgusted with the performances of politicians from the traditional parties. And it’s failed even though we in the media have taken it far more seriously than other minor parties. In part, that’s because until this year, the IP, in gubernatorial races, has run serious candidates with impressive bona-fides.

Horner, for example, said he was treated with respect — and given considerable media coverage — on his initial trips through the cities of Minnesota in his race four years ago. But it was on the second trips through those cities, he said, that he was struck by reality: there was not much public interest in IP candidates. “I can’t tell you how many hours I spent in Perkins’ with two or three people,’’ Horner said of his campaign.

Mark Jenkins, the ebullient IP chairman, admits this election cycle “is a tough one.’’  But this is no time for political obituaries, Jenkins said. Even if the IP’s  would lose major party status — one of its candidates in a statewide race must collect five per cent of the vote or the crucial “major’’ status is gone  — the party would not disappear.

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“I’m not concerned about the five per cent,’’ Jenkins said. “I think that’s doable. But I will say this, even if we don’t hit five per cent we’re not going to go away. We’re not going to go away until the parties start representing us.”

Mark Jenkins
Mark Jenkins

In Jenkins’ mind, “us” is the middle of the political spectrum as opposed to the extreme bases of both the Republican and DFL parties. For Jenkins and that base of IP believers — anywhere from 3 to 6 per cent of the electorate, according to Horner — the IP reflects Minnesota values. The party supported gay marriage and opposed the voter ID amendment; and currently supports legalization of marijuana, Sunday sales of liquor and automobiles and seeks fiscally prudent approaches to balanced budgets.

“I get all sorts of calls about Sunday sales,’’ said Jenkins. “But that’s an issue both of the other parties are afraid of. Our belief is that if you can legally purchase something on Saturday, you should be able to make that purchase on Sunday.’’

Nicollet says such issues as Sunday sales represent the greater themes of the party. 

“Our message is live and let live,’’ said Nicollet, who was a Ron Paul activist prior to emerging as the IP’s gubernatorial candidate. She believes it’s a message that younger generations of voters yearn to hear.

They are going to have a hard time hearing it from her, though. At present, Nicollet has less than $20,000 for her campaign. The great IP hope is that Nicollet, who is scheduled to be in the first gubernatorial debate of the campaign (Oct. 1 in Rochester) will outshine incumbent Mark Dayton and GOP challenger Jeff Johnson. 

And if such well-respected candidates as Tim Penny (16 per cent of the vote in 2002), Hutchinson (6 per cent in 2006) and Horner (12 per cent four years ago) could only be spoilers in their races, what hope does an unknown such as Nicollet have of reaching even 5 percent of the voters? 

All of which means this campaign season could be the last one for the IPs.

Hannah Nicollet
Hannah Nicollet

Penny, the former conservative Democratic U.S. Congressman, believes there must be an IP future. Look no further than the pathetic state of politics as it’s currently practiced to see why.

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“This won’t be a great year (for the IP),’‘ said Penny, “but it’s not over. There’s no compelling reason to believe that either of the other parties will seriously work to recapture the middle. In the long run, if that were to happen, then that would be it for the Independence Party. But there’s nothing to show that will happen. … Both parties continue to believe that to have success, they must cater to their bases.’’ 

Penny believes that appeal-to-the bases approach means gridlock, cynicism and fundamental national problems not being dealt with. In his mind the IP needs “to hang around; it’s day may come back and meantime concentrate on the next generation.’’

There is a quicker route to salvation than waiting on the next generation. That would be the appearance of either a very rich, or extremely charismatic, character (preferably both) who would step into the political picture. In 1992, there was Perot, who was both rich and charismatic. (He won 23 per cent of the Minnesota presidential vote.)  And in 1998, there was Ventura, who captured the imagination of 37 percent of the voters in his winning bid to become governor. 

There may not be any Venturas lurking in the shadows of Minnesota politics, Horner says. But there are people who could fill that role in a different way. Imagine, said Horner, if someone such as former news anchor Don Shelby decided to make himself available to run on the IP slate. Or, someone such as Marilyn Carlson Nelson. The party which is now being written off would suddenly come to life again.

A superstar might be able to overcome the one big factor that has always made life so hard for IP candidates: The wasted-vote fear. Jenkins says Steven Levitt, a co-author of the book “Freakonomics,’’ nailed the IP problem. “He talks about how facts say one thing, but actions often say something different,’’ Jenkins said. “Poll after poll shows that 60 per cent of Americans want a strong third party, but what happens when people vote?’’

What happens is that voters, often holding their noses, go back to their traditional parties. 

Jenkins says that “in the long term” his party must do a better job of identifying what it stands for. “We have to define the party, not just ride on the coat tails of whoever our candidate might be.’’

But even using a term such as “long term’’ sounds like bravado at this point. Without short term success — meaning a candidate for governor, secretary of state, auditor or attorney general — picking up five per cent, the substantial perks of being a so-called major party disappear, including automatic ballot access and eligibility for the public campaign funds.

Without those perks, the IPs is in line to join the Grassroots Party, the Libertarian Party, the Constitution Party, and the Green Party in political obscurity.