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At a Catholic Charities gathering last fall, Tom Horner and Stephen Imholte began chatting about the looming 2010 governor's race. They knew each other casually from years spent working on Republican campaigns and causes. But as they talked, it also became clear that they shared a growing frustration with the increasingly rightward tilt of the GOP in recent years. Both believed that there was an opening in 2010 for a centrist candidate to exploit the polarization of the two dominant political parties and the resulting gridlock at the Capitol.

Horner’s campaign has gained momentum, but can he keep it going?

Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Stephen Imholte (right), the manager of the Horner for governor campaign, says a recent poll showing Horner at 18 percent “was exactly where we thought we needed to be.... We knew that in September, we had to push ourselves in the teens and twenties.” (Photos: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

At a Catholic Charities gathering last fall, Tom Horner and Stephen Imholte began chatting about the looming 2010 governor’s race. They knew each other casually from years spent working on Republican campaigns and causes. But as they talked, it also became clear that they shared a growing frustration with the increasingly rightward tilt of the GOP in recent years. Both believed that there was an opening in 2010 for a centrist candidate to exploit the polarization of the two dominant political parties and the resulting gridlock at the Capitol.

“We found out we were thinking alike,” Imholte recalled. “When we concluded the conversation, I made an open-ended statement that I shouldn’t have made, which was let me know how I can help.”

Roughly a year later, Imholte is serving as the campaign manager for Horner’s underdog Independence Party bid for the governor’s office. The campaign has come a long way in the ensuing months. The public relations executive has garnered the support of high-profile backers such as former Gov. Arne Carlson and former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, and has raised over $1 million when public subsidies are counted.

With less than six weeks before election day, there’s some evidence that the Horner campaign is gaining momentum. The latest KSTP/Survey USA poll, released last week, found the IP nominee garnering support from 18 percent of those surveyed –  twice what he’d registered in the same poll a month earlier.

“That’s exactly where we thought we needed to be,” said Imholte. “We knew where we would be all through June, July August. … We knew that in September we had to push ourselves into the teens and twenties.”

But while Horner’s progress is undoubtedly drawing notice, he remains a considerable longshot in the three-candidate field. Both Republican Tom Emmer and Democrat Mark Dayton have roughly double the support of the IP challenger, according to the KSTP poll. And if recent electoral history is any indicator, Horner will struggle to stay afloat as voters zero in on the contest.

In the last two gubernatorial contests, credible IP challengers have failed to significantly trouble their DFL and GOP counterparts. Former congressman Tim Penny initially polled strongly in 2002, but ultimately received just 16 percent of the vote. Four years later, Peter Hutchinson was never able to crack double digits in any poll and ended up with just 6 percent of the vote. That entrenched reluctance among voters to back a third-party candidate – broken only by Jesse Ventura’s shock upset in 1998 – could be compounded this year by the severity of the state’s looming $5.8 billion budget shortfall.

“He’s kind of like the shark,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, of Horner. “If he keeps moving, he’s going to be able to feed and grow. But if he stops moving, he’s probably going to start seeing his support dwindle.”

Jacobs further argues that the media – and the Star Tribune in particular – have largely treated Horner with kid gloves. But that should change if he truly emerges as a viable challenger for the state’s top elected office. “As he rises in the polls, he’s going to start taking incoming,” said Jacobs. “He’s not going to get the free pass that Jesse Ventura got. He will be scrutinized.”

Republican roots

Stephen Imholte’s Republican roots run deep. Growing up in Detroit Lakes, his father immersed him in GOP politics.

“My dad probably had me dropping literature for Republican candidates since I was three or four years old,” laughed the 53-year-old Imholte during a recent interview at Latuff’s Pizzeria in Plymouth. “So I call myself a 50-year Republican.”

In 1980, barely out of college, Imholte unsuccessfully challenged Collin Peterson for a state Senate seat. Later that decade, he served as political director for the Republican Party of Wisconsin. Later, as then-Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson looked forward to his 1994 re-election bid, Imholte spent two years as his campaign director in anticipation of a tough battle.

“He was absolutely the toughest boss I ever had,” recalled Imholte. “He’s smart; he knows exactly what he wants; he’s a 5 a.m. guy.”

But after that gig, Imholte walked away from politics, at least professionally. Eventually he purchased a landscaping business and ran that for several years. When Horner finally convinced him to jump back into the political fray full-time, Imholte was working with a local Catholic charity on improving long-term care options for seniors.

A lot has changed in the years since Imholte was a full-time GOP operative. “I don’t even know, for crying out loud, that email was around yet [during my last campaign],” he said. “I think it was just starting.”

Imholte believes that the Republican party also changed significantly during the last two decades.  He cites the experience of the “Override Six” as a prime example of the party’s drift. After a half dozen GOP state legislators voted in 2008 to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of an increase in the state’s gas tax, the apostates were stripped of leadership positions and many were denied party backing by local GOP activists.

“Here is a group of legislators that were really trying to do the best thing, they thought, for the state of Minnesota,” Imholte said. “And because it wasn’t  in lockstep with their party, they got turned out. I think you need dissent. I don’t know that you’re seeing dissent and discussion and negotiation to the extent that you used to have it.”

Laura Merickel tells a similar story of growing disaffection with the Republican party. Her father, Cal Larson, spent four decades as a GOP member of the state House and Senate, representing Fergus Falls. “I’ve been a Republican since I could walk,” said Merickel.

In the 1980s, she worked in U.S. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz’s office, as well as serving on his campaign staff. She was also a loyal supporter of Norm Coleman, from his 1998 bid for governor to his defeat in the 2008 U.S. Senate contest. In fact, Merickel was one of six Republican women who sent a letter to Al Franken during the campaign calling on him to apologize for a sex fantasy column he penned for Playboy in 2000.

“Rudy and Norm were not so ideologically inflexible that it prevented them from doing the things that were right for our state,” said Merickel. “I’m just seeing that that’s more and more of a challenge for both parties.”

Merickel is now playing a key role in the Horner campaign’s fundraising efforts, focusing in particular on major donors. She notes that the IP candidate doesn’t have the ability to tap into a substantial existing database of regular party donors like his two principal rivals. “Tom’s candidacy has not had that luxury,” she said. “So it takes an extra bit of getting to know him for people to step outside where they would traditionally be.”

Other key members of the campaign operation come from less partisan backgrounds. Communications Director Matt Lewis previously worked as a staff writer at The Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C. watchdog organization. While there, he researched reports scrutinizing federal transportation policies and the growth of lobbying focused on climate change legislation.

Maria Vasiliou recently joined the staff as deputy campaign manager. Her resume includes stints as director of customer relations for construction firms Schafer Richardson and Opus Northwest. Vasiliou also spent eight years on the Plymouth City Council, from 1985 to 1993.

The IP campaign now has roughly a dozen paid staffers, with volunteers also continuing to serve in key roles. Horner believes that the operation is now primed to effectively handle the drive to the general election.

“With the Independence Party we have great, very passionate, dedicated people, but not a lot of depth in the mechanics of a campaign,” Horner told Capitol Report. “We spent the summer building out the fundraising mechanisms, the public policy development, the media outreach, those kinds of core campaign functions, so once we got past the primary we would be able to hit the ground running. We did that and the payoff has been pretty obvious in the momentum that we’ve built.”

Circumstances give Horner a boost

In many ways, the 2010 governor’s race has set up ideally for a third-party, centrist candidate to emerge as a significant force. Dayton’s tax-the-rich mantra has seemingly alienated a significant number of voters who might otherwise be inclined to elect a Democrat to the state’s top office for the first time in more than two decades. Emmer’s hard-line stance against any new revenue, despite the state’s budget crisis, has similarly narrowed his potential demographic appeal. Both candidates are apparently struggling to retain their own parties’ faithful: Polls consistently show that roughly a quarter of self-proclaimed Democrats and Republicans aren’t backing their party’s nominee.

“Tom’s got the area between the 30 yard lines,” said Dave Durenberger, who’s serving as an informal adviser to the Horner campaign. “He’s got a lot of the playing field almost to himself.”

But the Humphrey Institute’s Jacobs, while praising Horner’s campaign operation so far, argues that his support is soft. In particular, he believes that the business community, where Horner has made significant inroads, could prove skittish. “They are intensely worried about Mark Dayton,” Jacobs said. “They’re supportive of Horner, but in terms of intensity they ‘re much more worried about Dayton than they are supportive of Horner.”

If the IP candidate is ultimately able to overcome the inherent disadvantages of running as a third party candidate, don’t expect to see Imholte at the Capitol too often. As he frequently reminds people, starting on November 3, he plans to spend his time fishing.

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