Why Minnesota has Tom Horner, and Delaware has Christine O'Donnell
Tom Horner's strategy last week worries the Republican party. He rolled out a raft of endorsements from Republican former legislators. He declared the election will come down to "an outcome of either a Governor Dayton or a Governor Horner." Horner's strategy has shifted. No longer playing the role of "man in the middle," Horner's chosen to compete head to head with Emmer for Republican votes.
The reaction from Republican leaders was predictably sharp. Saying "there's a special place in hell for those quislings," RPM Chair Tony Sutton seemingly compared Horner's endorsers to Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling. Later he clarified that he only meant that they were "traitors." For a moment, I thought that Sutton was making a disturbing but sophisticated analogy. It turns out he'd just been playing with his thesaurus.
Between Sutton's other comment that these legislators were the unsuccessful "permanent minority" and Michael Brodkorb's characterization that they represent a "bygone era," Republicans sought to minimize the appearance of a fracturing Republican base. But Brodkorb's "bygone era" actually offers us some clues about how this might play out.
In many ways, the 2010 dynamic between Horner and Emmer harkens to the Republican battles of 1994, when incumbent Republican Governor Arne Carlson was denied endorsement by his party. Unlikely candidate Allen Quist's brand of evangelical Christian, pro-life Republicanism rode a wave of new delegates to a 70% endorsement win over Carlson. Subsequently, popular incumbent Carlson trounced Quist in the primary election, and thrashed DFLer John Marty to easily win re-election. In the next year, what had been named the "Independent Republican" party dropped the "independent," and Arne Carlson was the last IR Governor. This was more than a simple change in branding. Carlson was also the last significant Republican to be denied endorsement for a statewide office to defy the party process. And after Carlson's victory, the Quistlings continued to influence the party process, more often by pushing the eventual endorsee toward more socially conservative positions than by elevating their own preferred candidate.
Emmer's base resembles the Quistlings. Emmer rode a new wave of TEA party inspired delegates to a surprising Republican endorsement win over Marty Seifert. Years of party discipline that marginalized and punished any dissent has prevented any divisive statewide primaries since 1994. This process succeeded in clearing the primary field for endorsee Emmer in 2010. Contrast this with Republican primaries nationwide where TEA party dissatisfaction with establishment Republicans was channeled into insurgent campaigns outside the control of state party figures. In Minnesota, insurgent campaigns in the Republican party are confined to endorsing conventions. And while a wave of new activists can propel a candidate to endorsement, they can also struggle to make change inside of arcane and byzantine party structures. Keeping them involved in the everyday struggles of party governance after the initial burst of energy is another problem. Only time will tell, but it's difficult to build a lasting political movement fueled by anger and frustration.
Confining the dynamic process of party change to internal processes has benefits for Minnesota Republicans. It allows them to spend scarce election resources more efficiently, since there are never expensive primary campaigns requiring funding. It presents a smooth surface of unity. It keeps disagreements "in the family," only rarely escaping into the public domain. And messaging is more unified, since a standard bearer is chosen early in the process. DFL anguish over the increasing irrelevance of the DFL's endorsement process reflects a recognition of these advantages.
But the rise of Horner and the quislings in 2010 represent the return of the repressed in the Republican party. The presence of Neil Peterson among the quislings is notable, in that he was one of "Override Six" who were systematically drummed out of the party (excepting Jim Abeler, who is the lone survivor.) Nearly all of the quislings represented suburban districts now represented by DFL'ers. Brodkorb's characterization of them as part of a "bygone era" is apt in that sense.
Minnesota's unique political culture, particularly its long history of third party politics, is often cited in explaining the existence and relevance of Minnesota's Independence Party. But the IP's continuing relevance is its presence as an ideologically flexible umbrella for a diverse collection of candidates. Consider that Horner's brand of moderate Republicanism seems at home there, just months after Dean Barkley invited TEA party activists to take over the IP. The Republican purity putsch has left many well-connected Republicans of that "bygone era" out in the cold. And now comes Tom Horner who offers them a new home.
So in Delaware (and Alaska, Kentucky, etc.,) Republicans play out this process of party change in the spotlight of a primary campaign. In Minnesota, sixteen years of careful and at times brutal emphasis on party unity and party process have suppressed primary campaigns at the expense of creating a Republican third party candidate in the general election. No wonder Sutton and Brodkorb are so vehement in their denunciation. DFL'ers who pine for a more disciplined party where the endorsing process rules should take note.
Before Minnesota DFL'ers get too excited about these developments, keep in mind Horner's strategy shift last week is a last-ditch effort to get into the race. His campaign knows that he needs to pass somebody in some poll soon in order to be seen as viable. They've correctly identified Emmer's base as more easily split. If he can do that, he'll then turn to wavering DFL'ers.
Horner campaign manager Steve Imholte said that's his next job: "I'm confident we'll get DFLers. Our first step is to define the race as between Horner and Dayton."This is a smart gambit by Horner, but a one born of weakness. He would prefer to continue to be a man of no party in an era where regard for both Democrats and Republicans has never been lower. His shift to compete directly for Republican votes is a more honest one and one he's better suited for. After all, he is a Republican. Maybe from a bygone era, but a Republican nonetheless.
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