Horner hopes third-party risk pays off Election Dayby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Tom Horner took a big risk this year. He abandoned the Republican Party, quit the public relations business he founded and launched a shoestring, third-party campaign for governor.
Despite having far less money than the Republicans and Democrats, Horner has played a major role as the Independence Party candidate in the governor's race, primarily by participating in more than two dozen debates.
With just a few days left in the campaign polls show Horner's campaign is struggling, and it appears his risky move may not pay off.
But that hasn't stopped Horner. When meeting new audiences, he often begins his formal remarks with a personal story aimed at demonstrating his widespread appeal.
At a campaign stop this week, he told a group of students and teachers at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington how he met his wife Libby. It was the fall of 1978. Horner was working for newly-elected Republican Sen. Dave Durenberger.
"The very first person I met in Washington was the person with whom a couple of weeks ago I celebrated my 30th wedding anniversary," he said.
Horner, 60, hopes the story of how he met his wife speaks to the core of the centrist message he's trying to sell.
"Libby had been a staff person for Sen. Muriel Humphrey and before that, thank you, for Sen. Hubert Humphrey," he said. "So, as I tell people, we were bipartisan way before bipartisan was cool."
After working for Durenberger, Horner returned to Minnesota in the mid-1980s and co-founded the public relations firm Himle Horner in 1989.
Before running for governor, Horner had never before run for elected office. But he had built a reputation as a Republican strategist and a behind-the-scenes public policy shaper.
The centerpiece of Horner's campaign for governor has been his call to balance the state budget by expanding the sales tax to clothing and services and lowering the tax rate.
He said his approach would involve everyone in addressing revenue shortfalls, not just high income earners as Democrat Mark Dayton is proposing. Horner promises to include protections for low-income Minnesotans but,
"When you're disconnected from the cost of government, it's pretty easy to be an advocate for bigger government," he said. "A sales tax is transparent. You don't pay much, but everybody pays a little bit."
Horner would also increase taxes on cigarettes and alcohol.
In addition to campaign appearances and debates, Horner has been airing a limited number of TV commercials.
"Newspaper endorsements around the state are calling Tom Horner the best candidate for governor," states one of his ads. "Vote Tom Horner and move Minnesota forward."
But Horner's opponents and outside groups are on the air much more than he is. Conservative groups try to link him to Democratic nominee Mark Dayton.
"If you support Obama's health care plan and think we should raise taxes to balance the state budget, then your choices are Mark Dayton or Tom Horner," says a TV ad by the GOP-leaning group Minnesota's Future.
Liberal groups portray him as another Republican, like GOP nominee Tom Emmer.
"When Tim Pawlenty steps down as governor, Tom Emmer and Tom Horner would be more of the same," says a TV ad by the DFL-leaning group Alliance for a Better Minnesota.
From the outset, Horner has said, and political analysts have agreed, that his challenge was to raise money and convince Minnesotans that a vote for him would not be a wasted vote.
He's raised more than $1.2 million and won the endorsements of three former Minnesota governors and most of Minnesota's major newspapers. Still, Horner has not broken through. The latest major polls show him losing ground.
"There are so many Dayton supporters who aren't particularly enamored of Mark Dayton. They're just so fearful of a Governor Emmer," Horner said. "And so many Emmer supporters who are fearful of a Governor Dayton, those are Horner supporters -- if I can get them over the fear and get them to vote the future."
But now with only days to go before the election Horner has yet to achieve the fundraising and other goals he set months ago. And it's beginning to look like the gamble he took that Minnesotans were once again ready for a third party governor may not pay off.
This story is part of our candidate profile series airing in the last days of the election season.
- All Things Considered, 10/28/2010, 5:20 p.m.