What's interesting this election year is what's absent

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 20, 2012 - 7:44 PM

The IP isn't fielding potential spoiler candidates in races for Congress.

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U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann and Tim Walz, shown here as freshmen, each face only one general-election opponent this year, a rarity for them.

Photo: Brendan Smialowski, Star Tribune

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With 100 percent of precincts reporting from last Tuesday's intraparty plebiscite and no recounts in sight, Minnesota's congressional election dance card has been filled.

It may not appear so to voters who've come of age in the post-Jesse era of Minnesota politics.

The Nov. 6 ballots in six of the state's eight congressional districts won't include an Independence Party candidate for the U.S. House. The two who claim the IP banner by virtue of primary wins, Steve Carlson in the Fourth and Adam Steele in the Seventh, are unclaimed by the Independence Party in return.

Similarly spurned by IP officialdom is Stephen Williams, who bested Glen R. Anderson Menze in the IP U.S. Senate primary. (Menze was plain old Glen R. on the Seventh District ballot in 2010, when he scored 7,839 votes -- almost four times the number he received Tuesday. It was a bad day for good-ol' names. A guy named Humphrey lost a DFL state Senate primary in St. Paul.)

Minnesota's Independence Party is taking a bye from federal elections this year. That might not seem to matter much, given that during its 20-year history, the IP has been an also-ran finisher in every statewide and congressional election save for one world-shocker in 1998.

Yet two congressional challengers have recently cited the absence of IP congressional candidates as significant to their bids. Both GOP primary winner Allen Quist in the First District and DFL contender Jim Graves in the Sixth District say they are encouraged by being in two-way races with their respective incumbent opponents.

That would be DFLer Tim Walz in the First and Republican Michele Bachmann in the Sixth. Both are members of the congressional class of 2006. Bachmann is facing her first head-to-head contest with a single opponent. Walz hasn't had a two-candidate race since 2006.

Quist noted as much on election night, the Associated Press reported.

He was asked if he'll be the underdog against the better-funded Walz. "It'll be billed that way," he responded. "But we don't see it that way." Walz won with 49 percent of the vote in a four-way contest in 2010, Quist said. That share of the vote would make Walz the loser in a two-way race.

Graves cited the same congressional void on the IP ticket a few weeks back, while trying to persuade a deep-pocketed DFL audience that contributing to his bid to unseat the darling of the Tea Party would not be the equivalent of pitching coins into a nearby lake. He even took a little credit for the IP's absence from the Sixth this year.

"We needed to keep the Independence Party out of this race," Graves told the assemblage. "We went to ... the folks we know in the Independence Party, and I said, 'Can you not only keep somebody out; can you support us?' And they said, 'Yes, we will.' They've been out there doing this, talking to their people, supporting us, and that is great news. We've got a one-on-one race."

(The IPer who netted 10 percent of the Sixth District vote in 2008 and 5.8 percent in 2010 is a fellow named Anderson. There's a trend line there that Menze might want to note.)

With due respect for hotelier Graves' power of persuasion, getting the IP to stand down in federal races this year did not require a hard sell. The little limping third party decided not long after Tom Horner's gubernatorial drubbing in 2010 that it finally should attend to the overdue business of local party building.

"Our focus this year is legislative races," said IP chair Mark Jenkins, a wireless-data consultant from Maplewood and a 2010 IP candidate for the state Senate.

The party's website features six endorsed candidates for the Minnesota House. None of them are local elected officials, from whose ranks serious legislative contenders often come. Only three of them were able to raise the requisite $1,500 before July 23 to qualify for state campaign finance subsidies.

Jenkins is raising money for his six-man slate. His tally to date: $6,000, to be split six ways. To put that drop into bucket perspective: A typical successful state House race in 2010 spent about $25,000.

Jenkins seems like a realistic fellow. He won't say it, but I don't think he'll squawk if I do: The Independence Party's run may be just about over.

He sees his party's future this way: "Either we'll start winning, or the other two parties will start to moderate and squeeze us out. Either way, we've won."

But there's a third possibility. It may be that in hypercontentious American politics, there's not enough of a moderate middle left in the electorate to support either of those scenarios. Even in third-party-friendly Minnesota, the IP could just fade away.

In Jenkins' view, the absence of an IP candidate from congressional races won't make much difference to their outcome. About that, we agree.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. 

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