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Can Tom Horner defy Minnesota history?

Phil Krinkie//September 15, 2010

Can Tom Horner defy Minnesota history?

Phil Krinkie//September 15, 2010

Phil Krinkie
Phil Krinkie

In its 152-year voting history, Minnesota has elected only three third-party candidates for governor.

The first was the fire-brand populist Floyd B. Olson in 1930, running under the Farm Labor label. This popular Depression-era governor won re-election in 1932 and 1934 as well. (Yes, in those days elections for governor were held every two years instead of our current four-year term.)

Upon Olson’s untimely death in 1936, his successor Elmer Benson was elected governor under the Farm Labor ticket-but there was no Democrat in the race. Benson would only serve one two-year term before Harold Stassen beat him handily in 1938.

After the merger of the Farm Labor and the Democrat parties in 1944 into the DFL Party, no third-party candidate would mount a serious challenge for the top executive office until Jesse Ventura hit Minnesota’s political scene like a body slam in 1998.

Since Ventura’s stunning election that year-in his words, “We shocked the world!”-two other independent candidates have tried to be elected governor.

In 2002, former Congressman Tim Penny was only able to grab 16 percent of the vote, despite the fact that he represented the first congressional district for 12 years. The Independence Party candidate in 2006 was Peter Hutchinson, who with no political base and a lack-luster campaign garnered only 6.5 percent of the vote.

So what chance does Independence Party candidate Tom Horner really have to capture the governor’s office this November?

History would indicate Horner has little or no chance of winning, without a major event or serious political gaff by either DFL candidate Mark Dayton or Republican candidate Tom Emmer. The reasons are numerous and obvious to political insiders but seem to be lost to those who work in the ivory towers of academia or who write for the Star Tribune.

So, for the record, let’s share what the political insiders already know.

First, there are no major divisions within the DFL or GOP parties. Both major parties seem dedicated and committed to supporting their respective party’s candidates, and both have money, volunteers and strong get-out-the-vote efforts. This highlights the second point that’s key to winning a statewide race: Money!

Mark Dayton has already shown he’s willing to spend millions of dollars from his personal fortune to advance his candidacy. Like most politicians, Tom Emmer has no significant personal wealth to spend on this race, but he did not need to spend millions in order to win the August 10 primary.

Because Dayton is not abiding by the campaign spending limits, which he can do if he is willing to forgo the public subsidy, the other candidates in the race can also exceed the spending limit while still taking the public finance money. This means that this year’s gubernatorial campaign will likely be the most expensive governor’s race in state history.

This does not bode well for Horner. It’s unlikely that Horner will be able to raise the money to be competitive with either Dayton or Emmer’s campaign resources.

Next, there is the issue of a political base. In 2002, Tim Penny had a strong starting point, having been a popular Congressman serving from the First Congressional District for 12 years. Horner has never sought public office prior to this race. While he has worked in government and knows his way around the halls of the Capitol, Horner has no real political base of support, similar to the circumstance surrounding another smart yet unknown Independent candidate, Peter Hutchinson.

While Tom Horner may indeed have a good working knowledge of state government, common sense tells us that his current political shortcomings seem to outnumber his pluses.

He certainly doesn’t appear to have the boldness or voter charisma-especially with younger and first-time voters-that Jesse Ventura did. He lacks the political base of a Tim Penny and he doesn’t have the personal fortune of a Mark Dayton.

Third-party candidates are a longshot to win, even in a state where third-party candidates have won in the past. No one would compare Tom Horner with Floyd B. Olson, let alone Jesse Ventura.

Furthermore, the message that Horner has crafted and successfully projected throughout his campaign-“the centrist” way-vanished with the announcement that former GOP Gov. Arne Carlson was endorsing him. Horner has campaigned as being the “centrist” or true “middle of the roader” while promising to raise nearly everyone’s taxes.

However, left-leaning voters view him as a “Republican” disguised as an Independent, while right-leaning voters label him as a moderate-turned-liberal. But now touring the state with former Gov. Carlson-who endorsed Barak Obama in the last presidential election-I label Horner as confused.

This move makes him look less like the viable alternative independent and more like a candidate who’s just desperate to gain support from any corner.

He does seem to have the support of the Star Tribune’s opinion pages, which last Sunday (September 12), carried a piece that expressed admiration for Horner’s proposal to expand the sales tax to clothing and services along with his rather “wonky” approach to resolving Minnesota’s huge budget deficit.

What the folks at the Star Tribune opinion pages seem to have forgotten is that after two short years Gov. Ventura found himself alone in the corner office with only one legislative ally. The Star Tribune, like many voters, seems to be ignoring the fact that the Legislature must pass a bill before the governor can sign or veto it.

We all know the political landscape in Minnesota can change as fast as a windstorm on the prairie. However, the likelihood of Tom Horner polling close to the numbers of former Congressman Tim Penny is very doubtful.

And that won’t get him near the governor’s office.

Phil Krinkie, a former eight-term Republican state rep from Lino Lakes who chaired the House Tax Committee for a while, is president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty recently appointed Krinkie to the board of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system. You can contact him at: [email protected].

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