Minnesota's Independence Party candidates made a strong showing in Tuesday's election, by third-party standards. But their double-digit vote totals in several hard-fought races are reviving questions about the role the party is playing.

Does the IP embody a developing political movement, seeking to provide an alternative to an increasingly dysfunctional two-party establishment? Or is the party mainly a so-called spoiler -- seldom able to mount competitive candidacies while frequently doing more damage to DFLers than to Republicans.

Since its founding in the early 1990s, the IP has managed to win exactly one high-profile race, the election of Gov. Jesse Ventura a decade ago.

"They're looking more and more like spoilers at this point, pulling swing voters away from the Democrats," said David Schultz, who teaches political science at Hamline University in St. Paul. "They certainly aren't getting enough votes to win, but the IP has been capturing the swing votes."

Nowhere was the impact of the party more pronounced than in the still-knotted U.S. Senate race. With only hundreds of votes out of nearly 3 million cast separating Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken, Independence standard-bearer Dean Barkley got more than 437,000 votes.

And, according to an exit poll conducted Tuesday, if Barkley hadn't been running, Franken would have netted more than 20,000 additional votes.

"The Democrats still outnumber the Republicans, but they aren't at 50 percent," Schultz said. "So if the swing votes go to the Republicans, it almost equalizes the campaign even if the Democrats hold onto their base."

Barkley, one of the party's architects and mastermind behind Ventura's victory, waves away the argument that his candidacy swayed the election one way or another.

"Whoever loses, they cost themselves the election," he said. "They've made the argument forever that we're spoilers, but that's the arrogance of a two-party system that acts as if it has a God-given right to a certain number of votes."

Growth seen

Independence Party chair Craig Swaggert denies that the party undermined Franken.

"Everybody thinks we pull more from the Democrats," he said. "But in this case I don't think that we did."

Commentators and DFLers speculated on an Independence Party spoiler effect in 2006, when Gov. Tim Pawlenty squeaked past former Attorney General Mike Hatch to win re-election, Pawlenty's victory margin was only one-sixth of the votes won by IP candidate Peter Hutchinson.

Also on Tuesday, Republican candidates held on in the closely fought Third and Sixth congressional districts by margins considerably smaller than the vote totals won by Independence Party candidates.

David Dillon, the party's Third District candidate, won 11 percent of the vote and said he's troubled that his party may have been reduced to the role of spoiler.

"It's a legitimate, fair question," he said. "It bugs some people in the Independence Party that we have to wonder what our purpose is if all we're doing is ruining the results for one side."

"We have to figure out why we haven't been able to win," Dillon said. "After Tuesday, the same way the Republicans have to reassess what they're doing, our party has to do that, too. I'm a big believer in the aims of the party, but if you don't win, what is the point?"

Swaggert said the double-digit showings in multiple races signal progress for the party.

"I see it as a movement that's increasing," he said. "We definitely have, in this cycle, solidified our base."

Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184