The Minnesota Independence Party was once a model for third-party success.
It "shocked the world" with Gov. Jesse Ventura's 1998 victory. Disaffected DFLers and Republicans signed on. It fielded well-known candidates for higher office and regularly attracted 5, 10 and even (once) 21 percent of the vote in congressional races. It had picked up a few legislators and convinced the state it was primed to be a force in Minnesota.
Now, in 2012, the party appears to be struggling to be an afterthought. Its most recent statewide splash -- the 2010 governor's race -- saw candidate Tom Horner win just under 12 percent of the vote. This year, only 12 of the more than 400 candidates who vied in legislative primaries carried the IP banner and the party didn't endorse candidates in premier races.
Supporters say the low profile this year is by design.
Mark Jenkins, IP chair, said the party consciously decided to focus on a half dozen legislative seats, rather than divert attention, volunteer work and dollars toward federal races.
"Putting our focus on state legislative [races] takes one big thing away and that is the media attention," Jenkins said. "But here's where it helps. ... Come 2014, not only does our gubernatorial candidate hopefully have some help in the Legislature, but they will have stronger party presence in those districts where we have run good races."
If there is a mold for that focus, Zachary Liebl fits it. A young, first-time candidate for House in the third-party-friendly Willmar area, he says he hopes to win but is prepared to run again if he doesn't. He says he's fiscally conservative but open to tax increases as a last resort, "very pro-life" but supportive of access to contraception and sex education, and against the marriage amendment because it offends his libertarian values.
"My campaign is going to be a big impact no matter who wins," he said. "It is helping us grow our base."
He could be right. The area has seen its share of tight elections, and Independence Party candidates for statewide races have garnered 15 percent of the vote in the district.
Republican incumbent Bruce Vogel said he sees his DFL opponent, Mary Sawatzky, at events more often than he sees Leibl. But, he said, the IP candidate has shown up, too.
Where Leibl -- and all third-party candidates -- have a harder time competing: campaign and independent money.
DFLers and Republicans have started flooding the district. The Independence Party, with just $13,000 in the bank as of last report, has only a trickle. Party folks are quick to note that even though they lack cash, they also lack debt, an attribute neither the DFL nor the GOP can claim. But they still admit that cash, infrastructure and base-building attract votes.
"Politically, we need more resources," said 2010 gubernatorial candidate Horner. "Without question."