Tom Horner took a bigger risk than most when he embarked on his run for governor of Minnesota. The former Republican pundit and strategist turned Independence Party candidate alienated many of his old political allies when he switched party affiliation to challenge to GOP candidate Tom Emmer and DFLer Mark Dayton.
More fallout from his break with the Republican Party of Minnesota crystallized last weekend when the party’s state central committee voted 59-55 to place a two-year ban on party involvement by 18 high-profile Republicans who publicly supported Horner during the campaign.
The move reflects a more aggressively conservative turn by the Minnesota GOP that Horner says he was expressly moving away from in switching to the IP. “I don’t think my philosophy has changed since I got involved in politics in 1978,” he said. “But the Republican Party in Minnesota owns the brand. They get to define ‘Republican’ however they want.”
The new party is polarized and extreme, Horner said, and in the short term, the ban enacted last weekend makes sense. “Tony Sutton and the Republicans have to maintain a polarized environment because their agenda is so narrow,” he added. “In order for them to win, they need that polarization to leverage fear of the other side. In the long term, it leaves the Republicans with a party that simply isn’t going to be representative.”
Early on in the campaign, Horner, 60, also sold all of his stock in the public relations firm Himle Horner, Inc., which has borne his name since he teamed up with partner John Himle in 1989. His ties to the firm proved to be a source of political attacks and media questions after he refused to release a list of the firm’s clients.
While Horner doesn’t claim financial hardship, he admits that he never expected to sell of his share of the company so quickly. His plan was to take a leave of absence from Himle Horner during the governor’s race and slowly sell his share of the firm. But in talks with Himle and Todd Rapp, who ultimately bought Horner’s share, he decided to accelerate the process – putting Horner out of work sooner than he expected and netting him less for his shares than he’d hoped.
But despite a failed gubernatorial bid and sundered business connections, Horner says he isn’t worried. “I’ve always been an optimist,” he said. “I try to approach the future with confidence.” Since Election Day, Horner said, he has been taking some time to relax. And while he hasn’t settled on his next step, he hasn’t “closed the door to anything.”
Politically, Horner plans to continue his efforts to engage “the middle” by advocating issues he pushed in his campaign during the upcoming legislative session. He says the session promises to be as polarized as the election: Dayton, who has proposed to tax the rich to make up a substantial part of the state’s budget shortfall, will do battle with a newly Republican-controlled Legislature marked by a large – and very anti-tax – freshman class.
Horner has mulled the idea of starting a public policy nonprofit that would focus on reforming Minnesota’s tax structure. One of Horner’s main campaign issues was expanding the state’s sales tax to help solve the budget deficit and pay for services.
“I don’t think Minnesota needs another think tank,” he said. “What may be needed is to take some of those good ideas and consolidate them into a single, coherent political agenda. What we need is a political entity that can do the groundwork of explaining to citizens why we need a change in tax policy.”
Looking toward the 2012 elections, Horner said he plans to stay involved with the Independence Party – which, in his view, needs to craft a “clear, compelling and emotional” message: “The Independence Party needs to give a clear definition of what it stands for that’s not just ‘we are not Republicans and we are not Democrats.'”
Horner may also help the IP recruit potential candidates, and thinks the party can make inroads in the Legislature in 2012. Instead of simply working with candidates who emerge to carry the IP banner in local races, Horner wants the party to be more active in recruiting people and targeting districts where their message will resonate. “They need to be more proactive and disciplined,” he said.
Jack Uldrich, chair of the Independence Party, said Horner probably won’t be involved with the party in any formal capacity, but hopes to keep Horner’s network of supporters in the business world – big-time donors like George Pillsbury and other well-connected financiers – in the fold.
“What I’m most interested in doing as chair is making sure that Tom and his supporters stay involved with the Independence Party,” he said. “I’m excited about getting his professional skills involved, and his business and financial network will help the party.”
The degree of post-election involvement on the part of past Independence Party gubernatorial candidates with the party has varied. The only successful IP gubernatorial candidate, ex pro-wrester and Gov. Jesse Ventura, now stars in a truTV television show that aims to promote conspiracy theories. Toward the end of the election season, Ventura spoke up publicly on behalf of the Horner campaign.
Peter Hutchinson, who received the party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2006, had every intention of staying involved with the party after his failed election, Uldrich said, but soon joined the Bush Foundation in St. Paul, a job that requires him to stay out of partisan politics. The most involved former gubernatorial candidate has been Tim Penny, who previously served in the U.S. House as a Democrat. Penny is currently the president of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute, but he still attends the party’s conventions and actively supported Horner throughout the election.
Uldrich said he thinks Horner will be even more involved with the party than Penny. “He understands that this is a long-term prospect, and he has committed to helping to build the Independence Party,” he said.
Although he only managed to garner about 12 percent of the vote on November 2, Horner also isn’t ruling out another run for governor. He added that he would be open to a position in a Dayton administration, but doesn’t see himself running for any office other than governor.
Not everyone sees a bright political future for Horner. Republicans are especially harsh in their assessments. Former GOP gubernatorial candidate and talk show host Sue Jeffers said he has made himself a pariah through his failed gubernatorial bid. “He’s done, in all parties,” she said. “The IP won’t use him again, the Democrats want nothing to do with him, and Republicans have made their position clear.”
Al Quie, former Republican governor who was on the list of 18 banned GOPers, also doesn’t see a political future for Horner, but he thinks Horner can land on his feet elsewhere. “A lot of people want a political future more than he does,” Quie said, adding that Horner’s business skills will likely steer his post-election course. Horner, for his part, said he has considered starting up his own consulting firm or venturing back into the corporate world in some other capacity.
But Himle, who co-founded the public relations firm with Horner and was a state House representative for five terms, said there will likely be a place for Horner in politics if he wants one. “I think the DFL Party, the Republican Party and the Independence Party are all going through a lot of soul-searching after this election,” he said. “I think it’s an open question as to what the position of these parties will be going forward vis-à-vis how big of a tent they want in order to win an election.”