Tom Horner: What the IP must do to win

  • Article by: TOM HORNER
  • November 17, 2010 - 7:05 PM

Postelection analysis of the Independence Party again is taking familiar paths. Down one road is the ever-present question of whether the IP took more votes from the Democrats or Republicans. Meanwhile, another road is travelled by pundits who are quick to dismiss IP efforts as "vanity campaigns." On yet another path are the IP faithful and a growing chorus of reformers, including the Star Tribune ("Ranked voting looks even better," Nov. 9), responding with the claim that the election process ignores the middle majority by forcing voters to choose only from the far right or the far left.

As the guy who just spent the last 10 months of his life living these issues, let me offer some perspective: All these analyses miss the point. The IP isn't taking votes from anyone. In four gubernatorial campaigns, the IP has built a core base of support that will show up in every election. While the base is small, it is loyal. These aren't voters "taken" from a DFL or GOP candidate. They are Minnesotans casting positive votes for centrist candidates.

And while I can't speak for all candidates, I know my campaign -- and those of Jesse Ventura, Tim Penny and Peter Hutchinson before me -- wasn't ego-driven. I and the other IP gubernatorial candidates represent a large swath of Minnesota voters who are ignored by the DFL and GOP. There is much evidence to suggest that we speak for much broader audiences than our vote totals suggest.

However, the likelihood that I and other IP candidates have more support than votes doesn't mean that Ranked Choice Voting is a cure-all. Ranked Choice Voting -- allowing voters to cast a ballot for their first and second choice candidates -- is an increasingly necessary reform in a political system that favors Democratic and Republican candidates who come from the far reaches of their political parties. Yet, as critical as this reform might be, Ranked Choice Voting alone won't help the IP win elections.

If the Independence Party is to succeed politically, at least four developments are critical:

First, the political center needs to be branded. Accurately or not, Minnesotans define the political left as the defenders of social justice, where the interests of Everyday Joe or Jane take priority over Wall Street. If this requires bigger government, so be it. On the political right, Minnesotans see a party perceived to be for business and smaller government. The right is seen as the home of "traditional values."

As for the political center, for too many Minnesotans there is no definition. It's a political mash-up, a bit of this and a bit of that without any clarity and, worse, without any core principles. There needs to be a clear and compelling answer to the question, "What does it mean to be a political centrist?"

The question won't be answered by white papers and opinion articles. It has to be answered in the day-to-day give-and-take of politics, and the discussion has to engage not just the Independence Party but the same kind of organizations that define the left and the right -- unions, chambers of commerce, advocacy groups and others. When Democrats argue that Minnesota can solve its budget problems by taxing the rich and Republicans counter with proposals to rely only on spending cuts, centrist voices need to hold these ill-conceived plans accountable and provide common-sense alternatives with explanations that are compelling to average Minnesotans.

Second, ideas need megaphones and megaphones cost money. There needs to be a vehicle -- or, more effectively, several vehicles -- that raises the funds needed to give centrist ideas a forum. This isn't just about fundraising during a campaign year, but also in noncampaign years. Those representing the political center need to fund the policy research that creates innovative solutions. They need the forums that extend an idea's reach and impact. And, they need the professional messengers who are seeding the thoughts with reporters, policy makers and other influencers.

These two activities don't have to be the sole domain of the Independence Party. In some ways, they might more effectively be driven by a political interest group that is able to focus on substance without the baggage of past or present party candidates.

Two other activities, though, are essential to the Independence Party's future -- creating a broad-based party infrastructure and candidate recruitment.

Campaigns attract passionate and committed people. My campaign -- and those of IP candidates before me -- was no different. The challenge now is to keep all these talented people engaged, enhancing their skills and adding to their numbers. Two tasks are particularly important. First, the IP needs to develop bench strength in core campaign competencies, starting with fundraising. Second, a statewide network of grass-roots activists is essential.

The IP also should begin today to start recruiting candidates for the 2012 legislative races. One of the opportunities emerging from 2010 is how many local officials around the state endorsed the IP ticket and how many local offices were filled with men and women who consider themselves to be independents.

Along with recruiting good candidates comes the need for party discipline, including the hard decisions to not field candidates in some high-profile races. The first test of that discipline may be the 2012 race for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Amy Klobuchar. If there isn't a demonstrably better alternative to Sen. Klobuchar, why invest in a candidate?

I was proud of my campaign and to carry the IP banner. The endorsements of most major newspapers, three former governors, scores of local officials and former legislators and other leaders speak to the potential appeal of a common-sense, centrist platform. The small share of votes I won speaks to the challenges still facing the IP.

Tom Horner was the Independence Party nominee for governor.

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