A slate of prominent Minnesota Democrats gathered at a private home Tuesday evening to appeal to DFLers who are thinking about voting for Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner in November instead of DFL nominee Mark Dayton. The event, hosted by top-drawer DFLers like House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and former House Minority Leader Matt Entenza – all of them one-time 2010 candidates for governor themselves – was billed as question-and-answer session in a mass email sent out to Democrats.
The panel included Dayton campaign advisers, including former Rybak gubernatorial chief of staff Tina Smith and Wellstone Action head Jeff Blodgett, as well as members of the business community. They hoped to make a clear distinction between Dayton and Horner, who for the first time is showing up on Democrats’ attack radar.
The Republican Party of Minnesota has been going after Horner since he first announced his bid for the state’s top office. Republicans have repeatedly attacked Horner in official party press releases, blog posts and on Twitter. The GOP’s early advances on Horner made sense: Horner was a longtime Republican Party fixture as former press secretary to GOP U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger and a frequently cited Republican media pundit. Many thought he would peel votes away from GOP nominee Tom Emmer.
Until now, the DFL has steered clear of team Horner, largely ignoring the third-party candidate and focusing its attacks on Emmer. But with less than six weeks to go before the general election, the DFL is switching into Horner attack mode after some recent polls showed Dayton losing ground and Horner gaining momentum.
“In 1998, the DFL party made a fatal mistake in ignoring Jesse Ventura until the very last days,” DFL lawyer and adviser David Lillehaug said. “I’ve heard it has been discussed among campaign people that they are vowing not to make that mistake again.”
When Democrats attack
Horner campaign spokesman Matt Lewis said DFL Party trackers have been hitting non-public Horner campaign events recently, something they had not done before, and the DFL only recently started going after Horner in news releases related to the governor’s race.
At least four anti-Horner emails have gone out from the party since September 20, including one that attacked Horner’s education plan and another that criticized his refusal to release a list of his former public relations clients. One of the emails referred to Emmer and Horner as the “Republican Toms,” and the DFL released a web video comparing Horner to Gov. Tim Pawlenty, calling him “just another Republican.”
The Dayton-friendly political action committee Alliance for a Better Minnesota also recently put out at least two anti-Horner mailings that drew comparisons to the Republican governor. One noted past donations Horner has made to Pawlenty.
For Dean Barkley, former Independence Party U.S. senator and campaign chair for Ventura, this is a good sign. “Every time I see an attack ad against Horner I smile, because that means he is doing well,” he said. “I hope they keep them coming, because that’s only going to help him.”
In the numbers
Generally, Republicans and Democrats ignore the Independence candidate unless they become a threat, Barkley said. Horner recently reached 18 percent in the latest KSTP/ SurveyUSA and Star Tribune gubernatorial polls, double what he was polling through most of August.
At this point in Ventura’s 1998 run for governor, the ex pro-wrestler was polling at about 10 percent. Ventura only started surging ahead in the polls in late October, when it was too late for both parties to make a significant attack on his candidacy, Barkley said. For Horner, the surge and the attacks are coming earlier.
Polls have also shown Dayton and Emmer have been unable to reach about a quarter to a third of self-identified Democrats and Republicans. Horner, meanwhile, has seen his support from Republicans and Democrats increase, and he has made more gains with independent voters.
“Early on, the belief for Democrats was that Horner was a Republican so he will take votes away from Emmer, but that hasn’t been the case,” Lewis said. “We have been taking relatively evenly from both sides.”
Longtime GOP strategist Gregg Peppin said upcoming polls are likely to show Horner taking more votes from Dayton, who has led in most of the polls conducted so far. “Mark Dayton has peaked,” Peppin said. “The polls have shown that he isn’t going to go any further north. Horner has gotten what he is going to get from Republicans. If he is going to win, he will have to poach from Dayton.”
Appealing to moderate Democrats
Alan Wilensky, a former secretary for tax policy at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and now a professor in the business tax program at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, was also on Tuesday’s DFL panel to address questions from Democrats who may be hesitant about Dayton’s plan to increase the income tax on the state’s highest wage earners.
Peppin said Horner’s tax policy, which proposes a mix of tax cuts and an increase in the state’s sales tax, is going to draw more votes from Democrats than Republicans. “It’s going to be those limousine liberal types, the professorial types who don’t like what they are seeing in Dayton’s tax plan but aren’t entirely tax-averse.”
Former Republican Party Chairman Bill Morris, who is now head of Decision Resources and a Horner supporter, said Dayton has sharpened his rhetoric with Horner, particularly in the debate over increasing the sales tax or income taxes.
“Mark is going to have to be very, very careful with the more moderate Democrats,” Morris said. “That’s the group where his populist rhetoric isn’t helping him.”
The most likely scenario, according to Morris, is that Horner will pull votes from Dayton – historically, the Independence Party candidate has pulled more from Democrats – to tip the scale toward an Emmer win. Horner will have to pull in 25 to 30 percent in the polls soon to become a major contender, Morris said. “If he can pull that off by Oct. 20, then he would really shake up the race.”