The Wellstone-Mondale-Coleman melodrama has distracted attention from Minnesota's other political story: the dismal evaporation of Gov. Jesse Ventura's Independence Party.
When Minnesota's wrestler-turned-statesman petulantly declared in June that he would not seek a second term, former Democratic Rep. Tim Penny saw a golden opportunity. Penny hastily defected from the Democrats and not so humbly offered himself as Ventura's heir, winning the Independence Party's nomination in July. His campaign refrain was that he represented the "sensible center."
Throughout the campaign, polls pointed to a tight, anyone's-ballgame race among Penny, Republican Tim Pawlenty, and Democrat Roger Moe. A mid-October poll by the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune suggested a statistical dead heat, with 29 percent each for Pawlenty and Moe, and Penny at 27 percent. Penny won endorsements from several newspapers around the state, including the Star Tribune, whose editorialists called upon the electorate to "continue the centrist experiment." But on Tuesday, Penny, to paraphrase Ventura, failed to shock the world. Penny finished a distant third with a paltry 16 percent of the vote, nearly 30 points behind the victorious Pawlenty.
Penny's name was well known in Minnesota political circles: He'd logged six terms in Congress and more recently served as a Ventura adviser. But he lacked the celebrity status and rugged charisma that helped elect Ventura in 1998. Compared to Ventura, Penny came across as just another uninspiring policy wonk.
Four years ago, some cockeyed optimists read Ventura's surprise election as a shot in the arm for third-party politics. Ventura relished speculation that he could run for president, even as he disavowed interest in the job. He savored lending support to big shots like Donald Trump when the billionaire was toying with a presidential bid. But during his tenure in office, Ventura showed little interest in or patience for the admittedly tedious nuts-and-bolts work of building his party.
Originally elected under the Reform Party banner, Ventura disavowed that organization in February 2000, labeling it "hopelessly dysfunctional." In a letter to the national party at the time, Ventura noted, "Minnesota can serve a new national third party movement best by continuing to set the example for state party success." But there wasn't much "state party success" to point to in 2002.
In Minnesota's Senate race, the Independence Party put up a commercial banker named Jim Moore. Moore meant less to voters: He snagged a measly 2 percent of the vote. (In 2000, IP nominee James Gibson netted nearly 6 percent.) Moore didn't even serve as a spoiler: His 45,000 votes were less than Norm Coleman's margin of victory over Walter Mondale. Independence Party candidates for statewide offices such as secretary of state and state auditor garnered between 4 percent and 8 percent of the vote.
Of the 43 IP candidates for state legislature, only one will be going to St. Paul. Sheila Kiscaden of Rochester became the first legislator in state history elected under the Independence Party banner. But Kiscaden's victory isn't testimony to the promise of the party. Kiscaden was a 10-year GOP incumbent who jumped to the Independence Party only because the Republican Party endorsed a rival candidate.
It's true that Ventura has sent a Minnesota Independence Party member, Dean Barkley, to the U.S. Senate. But Barkley is an unelected placeholder merely meant to serve out the two-month balance of Wellstone's term. On the day before the election, during the only debate between Coleman and Mondale, Ventura tapped Barkley, extending a final middle finger to the major parties on his way out the door.
Minnesota has a historically independent political spirit, even within its major parties. The state Democratic Party is still known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, dating to a 1944 merger with the Farmer-Labor Party, a successful third party in the 1930s. The state GOP called itself the Independent-Republican Party for the two decades after Watergate. But in 2002, the mavericks of Minnesota voted Republican.
Tuesday's turnout was unusually high for a non-presidential race. Historically, high turnout has been good news for Minnesota Democrats. Tuesday it wasn't. Republicans here picked up a U.S. Senate seat, a U.S. House seat, and the governor's office while strongly expanding their majority in the state House of Representatives. One might have expected the Independence Party to reap some benefits of the declining Democratic fortunes in Minnesota, but that didn't happen either.
The "centrist experiment" alluded to by the Star Tribune remains a largely untested theory. Ventura didn't pass the torch—he dropped it into a bucket of water and let it fizzle. He wasn't able to use the leverage of his office to broaden his party's political base, and he didn't work very hard to construct a party infrastructure. Minnesotans clearly didn't view Independence Party candidates as credible alternatives. While the party's battle cry against "politics as usual" may resonate with voters, they are wary of candidates who they fear can do little but holler from the sidelines—even if elected. Let the record show that during his term in office, Ventura published three books, appeared twice on The Young and the Restless, and helped elect a single Independence Party legislator.