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For the Independence Party, no big-name candidates yet

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Mark Zdechlik

MPR News 91.3 FM

ST. PAUL — Jesse Ventura shocked the world when he won the Minnesota’s governor’s race in 1998. It was a third-party victory some thought would launch a generation of independent leaders.

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The shock, however, wore off quickly.

Ventura’s win more than 15 years ago was the last in Minnesota for a third-party candidate in a statewide election. Since Ventura’s single term as governor, the Independence Party he propelled briefly has routinely put up candidates for statewide office. None have come close to winning. That includes some high profile politicians such as former Democratic Rep. Tim Penny.

No candidate from the Independence Party has emerged so far to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Al Franken or DFL Gov. Mark Dayton this fall. Party officials say that while voters still want a choice beyond Democrats and Republicans, the major parties remain in control of the money and organization that helps win elections.

“I think that the Independence Party has shown that there is a pretty dedicated base of people who want an alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties,” said Tom Horner, a Republican strategist who represented the Independence Party in the 2010 governor’s race, going up against Democrat Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer.

Horner came in a distant third with 12 percent of the vote and has all but ruled out running again this year.

Independent candidates can shape the debate in major state campaigns by bringing forward proposals Democrats and Republicans might otherwise avoid, he said. Horner believes his push for a major sales tax overhaul during the 2010 campaign was a factor in Gov. Dayton’s decision to propose sweeping changes to the state sales tax.

The problem for the Independence Party is that its candidates just don’t stand a chance on Election Day, Horner acknowledged.

“Campaigns and elections ultimately are about winning and getting into office and serving and being able to directly implement your ideas,” he said. “For the Independence Party, the reality is that campaigns have become so expensive and it’s so hard to raise money as a third-party candidate that it’s difficult to see a viable path to winning an election.”

With every day that passes without strong 2014 candidates, the task of gaining traction becomes more difficult, said Independence Party Chairman Mark Jenkins.

“Until someone announces and until the filing period closes, I’ll always have a little bit of concern,” he added.

Ventura’s personal appeal could have helped make the Independence Party into a more viable force. But when he didn’t take an interest in party work, “that was probably the end of the line in terms of opportunity to capture the governorship again,” said John Wodele, a Democrat who served as spokesman and adviser to Ventura during his years as governor.

Ventura is now talking about presidential politics and a possible third-party White House run with shock jock Howard Stern, so he’s unlikely to come around to helping independent candidates in Minnesota, Jenkins conceded.

Even though the party’s candidates haven’t won since Ventura, they have been able to attract enough support to maintain its status as a major party. That status gives IP candidates access to debates and, in the case of gubernatorial candidates, campaign cash from the taxpayers.

However, if the IP fails to put forth a candidate that can win at least 5 percent of the vote in a statewide race this fall, the party will lose its “major party” status.

Jenkins said he’s confident that won’t happen. Dean Barkley, co-founder of the Independence Party, agrees.

“It’s kind of funny. Ever since I created this in 1992 about every two to four years people are writing our obituary,” Barkley said. “Well, we’re not dead. We’re alive and kicking and as strong as ever.”

Strong as ever because voters remain fed up with mainstream politics dominated by special interests, he added.

The governor’s race is the best option for the party because of the availability of state campaign money, Barkley said, noting that IP candidates typically announce later in the campaign process.

Barkley ran as the third party’s U.S. Senate candidate three times. If no one steps forward, he said he’ll consider running for governor this year.

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