Shutdown and its fallout create historic opportunity for Independence Party
Mark Jenkins knows how hard it is to win a legislative election as an Independence Party candidate: He ran last fall in Senate District 55 against DFL incumbent Sen. Chuck Wiger, earning just a little over 7 percent of the total votes in the North St. Paul and Maplewood district.
But as the new chairman of the Minnesota Independence Party, that’s exactly the emphasis Jenkins is going to put on the 2012 elections. “Our efforts are going to be focused on the Legislature,” Jenkins said. “We are avoiding the big ticket, big names that will draw resources away from races where we actually have a chance to win.”
Jenkins is making some changes to the party’s old way of running elections, and he says he can see picking off three to 12 legislative seats next fall. But for every day that passes with the Minnesota government in a historic shutdown — even with a budget deal supposedly on the horizon — Jenkins’ 2012 estimates inch upward. “Every year I always think politics are never going to be this divisive again: There it goes, I missed my chance,” Jenkins said. “But then it gets even worse.”
David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University, said, “The shutdown potentially offers an enormous window for the Independence Party because they can cast themselves as not being one of the two extremes.” But he notes: “They still need to convince voters that they are electable.”
History shows the IP has an uphill climb. Last fall, the party fielded 16 candidates to run for the Legislature, along with gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner, whose GOP and businesses ties and deep-pocket donors had party leaders enthusiastic about their chances. The figure represented an uptick from 2006 and 2008, when the party had only about 10 candidates running for the Legislature.
But no candidate carrying the IP banner was elected or even managed to put a significant dent in the legislative vote tallies last fall. And while Horner had a surge of popularity, he didn’t manage to break the 12 percent threshold of most IP candidates. The most successful recent IP legislative candidate appears to have been Paul Gaston, who challenged Rep. Bev Scalze in House District 54B in 2008 and garnered slightly more than 12 percent of the vote.
Tightening the organization
That’s going to change, Jenkins said. His first step as party chairman was to begin repairing what he called a “loose at best” organizational structure across the state. While some of the IP’s congressional district organizations have continued to do well over the years, others all but stopped operating over the last decade. The party’s local House and Senate organizations also were approaching extinction.
But the party started rebuilding that structure in 2009, Jenkins said, and recently re-established organizations in all eight congressional districts. House and Senate district-level organizing is next. “It’s really those volunteers in the district that get people elected,” Jenkins said. “It’s all about having boots on the ground. I don’t know enough about the Iron Range to get an Iron Range candidate elected, but someone in the community does.”
The party has also been drawing on staffers from Horner’s old campaign apparatus in setting up operations for the party. Horner’s former communications head, Matt Lewis, has signed on to do the same job partywide, and Horner himself is traveling around the state and holding news conferences to spread the IP’s message. He has also been providing strategic advice. Like others, Horner has pushed for a focus on the Legislature.
“In the gubernatorial race where you’re electing the leader of the state,” he said, “the stakes are high, so it’s understandable when people ultimately put their vote with one of the more established parties that they think can win. You don’t have that same kind of situation going on in legislative races. People understand that they are electing one of 67 senators or one of 134 representatives; they can afford to be a bit bolder with their vote.”
That will also mean more careful targeting of certain swing districts, Horner said, where the “pendulum” has swung back and forth and voters have shown an appetite for third-party candidates. While Jenkins and Horner say those exact districts remain unclear owing to the pending redrawing of district lines, the party has historically played strong in the outer-ring suburbs and in the 2nd and even 3rd congressional districts.
Shutdown expected to raise party’s appeal
Jenkins is also putting a lot of stock in about a dozen or so Independence Party local government officials who, in his opinion, could parlay their local name recognition into viable runs for the statehouse. Former Congressman and IP gubernatorial candidate Tim Penny says the fallout from the shutdown will cause more people to run with the third party than ever before. “I think we are going to see more candidates step forward and offer to run as independents, a lot of community leaders and local elected officials,” Penny said. “It’s getting to that point for them [where] enough is enough.”
Jenkins said the party will devote more attention to recruiting and vetting candidates, in contrast to the IP’s past practice of letting candidates step forward to claim the party’s banner. And it will place less emphasis in 2012 on statewide races. Jenkins says he has already been approached by a candidate seriously interested in running for U.S. Senate next year but does not want to devote the IP’s scarce resources to trying to beat popular DFL incumbent Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Fundraising is a challenge for any party in this economy but has been a consistent problem for the IP. Horner brought a lot of wealthy donors into the mix last fall — including GOP funding mainstays like George Pillsbury and Wheelock Whitney — some of whom may stick with it in the coming elections, Horner said. But Jenkins said the party has been going to the same old “wells” for money and needed to broaden its base of financial support. Within the last six months, Jenkins helped set up a fund to pool donations for legislative races. Donors, Jenkins said, are responding well to the fund.
A perennial money question within the Independence Party is a ban on dollars from political committees. As it currently stands, no IP-endorsed candidate can take money from PACs, but that question will be revisited at the party convention this fall. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, Jenkins said, party activists may want to reconsider the point.
In the end, trying to re-establish the Independence Party as a credible alternative is at the core of their challenge. The party’s biggest success came in 1998, when third-party candidate Jesse Ventura was elected governor. At the time, Ventura waved the banner of the Reform Party, which morphed into the Independence Party over time. But after that burst of success, the party has all but faded into obscurity, Schultz said, and candidates and leaders need to communicate that they can get elected and help to break the partisan gridlock.
“The burden is on us to get out and actually communicate that dysfunction to people,” Jenkins said. “We can’t hope the people will just come to us.”
Dean Barkley, a former Independence Party U.S. Senate candidate, says people have grown weary of the two main political parties. “People are tired of blaming one side or the other,” Barkley said. “There’s no question that the disgust is at an all-time high. If we could get a dirty dozen [IP legislators] in there, we could really change things in St. Paul.”
Horner would also like to see a half-dozen or more IPers in the Legislature but acknowledges the party has a long way to go before that can happen. “It’s nice to be all over the editorial pages,” he said, “but in the end we have to get the votes.”