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Poll-axed: Horner creeps up on gov field

Jake Grovum//September 17, 2010//

Poll-axed: Horner creeps up on gov field

Jake Grovum//September 17, 2010//

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Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
Man in the middle: Tom Horner, at center in last Wednesday’s Bring Me the News gubernatorial debate, had a big week in dollars and poll results. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Tom Horner dominated the past week’s chat cycle – will he become a genuine contender?

Independence Party gubernatorial nominee Tom Horner started the week gone by looking like a candidate destined to fulfill his party’s customary spoiler role in the Minnesota governor’s race. By Thursday, however, Horner had:

  • gained the endorsement of former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson;
  • raised more than $125,000 in three days;
  • reached 18 percent in the latest KSTP/ SurveyUSA governor’s race poll, by far his strongest showing in any survey to date and twice the percentage he claimed in the same poll on August 5.

Altogether, many have begun to wonder whether Minnesota might be heading for a truly competitive three-way gubernatorial race. KSTP led its 10 p.m. newscast on Wednesday with video of Jesse Ventura’s famous “We shocked the world!” declaration from election night 1998. The anchor asked: “Are we on the verge of a repeat?”

But despite the recent uptick in Horner’s showing, the question remains whether his recent surge is the beginning of an upward swing to Election Day or just a transient spike in voter interest occasioned by the Carlson endorsement. Ultimately, he remains far behind his opponents, Republican candidate Tom Emmer and DFLer Mark Dayton.

Horner himself admits his challenge is the same as it’s always been: raising money. “I have enough time if I have enough money, and the money is coming in well,” he said in Wednesday night’s Bring Me the News debate in Minneapolis, which was co-sponsored by PIM and Capitol Report.

Horner has found an open spot in the field. But the next few weeks will be critical, observers say, in determining whether he will be able to maintain his trajectory to November 2. Not to be dismissed is the question of whether Emmer and Dayton can succeed in locking down their respective bases – and generate all-important fundraising dollars.

“The [polling] news for Horner was good, but he has picked the low-hanging fruit,” Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College, said. “The road from 9 [percent] to 18 [percent] was not nearly as steep as the road beyond 18 becomes.”

Coalition building

Despite Dayton’s nominal lead in the race overall, both he and Emmer have been unable to reach about a quarter to a third of self-identified Democrats and Republicans. Emmer’s support from his party has been largely flat since early last month. In the August 5 Survey USA poll, he had 71 percent support from Republicans, 66 percent in the August 31 Humphrey/MPR poll and 72 percent in the latest Survey USA poll Wednesday.

On the other hand, Dayton has seen his support within his party drop in the last six weeks and then rebound a bit following the DFL’s hotly contested primary. In a pre-primary SurveyUSA poll from August 5, Dayton had the support of 83 percent of Democrats, 65 percent in the Aug. 31 Humphrey/MPR poll and 74 percent on Wednesday.

The result, observers say, is a real opportunity for Horner to continue building his voting bloc from disaffected DFLers, Republicans and independents. In six weeks, his support from Republicans and Democrats increased by 6 percent and 8 percent, respectively. He made an 11-point gain with independents.

But Horner can’t simply count on collecting voters disenchanted with their party’s candidates, said Kathryn Pearson, a University of Minnesota political science professor. He has to give voters a reason to choose him. “He has reason to be pleased about his momentum from the last poll, he’s clearly gaining momentum, but as a snapshot in time he’s still way behind,” she said.  “Horner can’t win with just independents.”

The question, then, is where Horner might be able to pick up votes. In the latest poll, he had the support of 22 percent of respondents over 50, a core Dayton constituency, and pulled almost equally from those identifying as liberal and conservative, at 15 percent and 13 percent. He has the support of nearly a quarter of self-described moderates.

Two political observers said in interviews that Dayton appears to have peaked in the middle-to-high 30s, which could still be enough to win the election. Still, Carlton’s Schier said, that means there’s a big opportunity both for Emmer and Horner with the other 60 to 65 percent of the electoral landscape, especially those outside of the liberal and Democratic base, which makes up the vast majority of Dayton’s support.

“Dayton has to worry the most. He’s a known quantity,” Schier said. “It would help Horner if the other two show poorly, or they attack each other into oblivion.”

Perhaps the biggest boost, though, would come if Horner is able to cut into Emmer’s support from the business community. Already, Emmer enjoys big spending from a number of business outfits, including MN Forward, which has received money from the likes of Target and Best Buy, and the more recently activated Minnesota’s Future.

But Dan Hofrenning, political science professor from St. Olaf, said he saw signs even during the primary of wavering support in the typically Republican coalition.

“Margaret Anderson Kelliher raised more money than Tom Emmer,” he said. “To me, that suggested some division in the Republican donor community, which is significant.”

Of course, Kelliher was facing a contested primary and was raising money off that, while Emmer secured the Republican endorsement in May. But it’s clear that if there’s any move away from Emmer among the business community, it will favor Horner over Dayton. And Horner appears poised to make a play for at least some of that support if he establishes himself as having a legitimate chance to win.

“There are certainly business folks that support Horner, and a lot of business folks that support Emmer,” said Mike Franklin, director of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee, which has yet to make an endorsement in the race. “The calculation will be, who’s going to be best for jobs in Minnesota? Which candidate that can win will be best for jobs in Minnesota?”

Is it possible?

While momentum currently appears to be on Horner’s side, history certainly is not. A third-party candidate winning the governor’s office isn’t unheard of in Minnesota, but it isn’t the norm either. Only three such candidates have claimed the big prize in 150 years. Of course, Jesse Ventura’s victory has been cited most by those who say Horner has a chance.

At this point in the 1998 race, Ventura was polling at about 10 percent, well below where Horner finds himself now. But times were different then. The unemployment rate was blissfully low, and the state was running billions of dollars in surpluses. Some say that helped Ventura: Voters who didn’t like the two major party options felt little compunction about taking a flier. This year, many believe, they won’t be so quick to risk wasting their vote; they will have to be convinced that any third-party candidate they embrace can win.

Aside from their third-party status and reasonably unpopular opponents, few would make the case that there’s much in common between Ventura, the former pro wrestler, and Horner, the former public affairs consultant.

“I just don’t see that kind of enthusiasm that Jesse had. [Horner] might be hitting his limit,” Steve Frank, a St. Cloud State political science professor, said. “There might be some unhappiness for the Republicans or Democrats, but I don’t think it’s visceral. I’m not sure where it’s going.”

For the Horner campaign, though, the poll was welcome news. But there’s a long road ahead to Election Day, and it seems likely to be an uphill climb at best. “Tom Horner’s not Jesse Ventura, Tom Emmer’s not Norm Coleman and Mark Dayton’s not Skip Humphrey,” said Matt Lewis of the Horner campaign. “It’s 2010, and we have the momentum.”

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