Blowout

Was election day a death knell for the Green and Independence parties?

By Paul Demko and G.R. Anderson Jr.

Heading into Election Day, Andrew Koebrick was in a stronger position than any Green Party candidate for statewide office in Minnesota history.

The 34-year-old Minnesota Department of Planning employee had been endorsed by both the Star Tribune and the Duluth News Tribune in his race for secretary of state. Koebrick had amassed a war chest of roughly $50,000--hardly a fortune, but enough to cover statewide radio ads and 50,000 pieces of literature for the final week of the campaign.

Koebrick believed he had a slight chance of actually winning the post, and figured that in any case he would garner at least six percent of the vote. But when all the ballots were tabulated, Koebrick found himself with a minuscule three percent of votes statewide, placing him fourth in the race.

"It's dumbfounding," Koebrick says. "I consider it a pretty serious indictment against the ability to ever muster a third party [without] a celebrity candidate."

Just six months ago, Minnesotans were in the rare position of having four major parties offering a host of candidates. And the Green and Independence parties looked poised to have a significant impact on races across the board. On Election Day, though, both parties completely failed to rally support.

Green Party gubernatorial candidate Ken Pentel, who ran a spirited campaign and was included in all major debates, garnered just two percent of the ballots cast. None of the Greens running for statewide office managed to get five percent of the vote, meaning that the party will lose its status as a major party. As a result, Greens will no longer be assured of a spot on the ballot, nor will they be eligible for state campaign funds.

Koebrick views the disappointing results as a major setback for the Green Party: "With all of the advantages of major-party status we weren't able to get five percent. How are you going to do it with none of those resources?"

Both Green and Independence party officials attribute the poor showing to a confluence of events beyond their control, particularly the death and partisan-tinged memorial of Sen. Paul Wellstone. In the fallout, a number of undecided and swing voters opted to stick with the more familiar Republican and DFL parties.

But in the case of the Greens, some blame infighting that went beyond normal growing pains for a fledgling party. Koebrick points to the fact that some members wanted to see the Greens remain a small, outsider political movement. And Ed McGaa, who was the party's endorsed candidate for Senate but lost in the primary to Ray Tricomo, believes the public sensed the party was in disarray.

For instance, Pentel withdrew his support for McGaa after it was disclosed that McGaa had been involved in a controversial waste-dumping deal in the 1980s. "Pentel got behind Tricomo, who is way out there as a candidate, and it cost him," McGaa claims. "It cost the whole party."

The Independence Party hardly did better. Tim Penny garnered just 16 percent of the vote in the governor's race, after emerging as the front runner early on in the campaign. Dave Hutcheson, the party's candidate for state auditor, was the only other Independence Party member to get more than five percent of the vote in a statewide race. (Both results ensure that the IP will remain a major party for now.)

Penny openly complained that Ventura's appointment of Dean Barkley to the U.S. Senate on the day before the election was an ill-judged move that overshadowed his campaign. But in truth Penny's campaign had begun to nosedive weeks before. He was hurt by his performance in gubernatorial debates, where he often came across as passive or arrogant; moreover, many onlookers considered Penny's an issueless campaign.

"There was a debate on October 21 where Penny did not fare well," admits Jack Uldrich, Penny's campaign chair. "He did not want to come out and attack Pawlenty and Moe, and he did not come across as a strong candidate. In retrospect, I would have encouraged him to be more aggressive, offer more specifics, and demonstrate that he was offering real leadership. It's not enough to say 'We're not Republicans' or 'We're not Democrats' anymore. We have to show we stand for something."

Each party did muster a few successes at the local level. The Greens captured a spot on the Winona County Commission, as well as the mayor's office in Cass Lake (although, in the latter case, by just four votes; a recount is scheduled to take place this week). Sheila Kiscaden won a state senate seat running under the Independence Party banner, after being elected three times as a Republican previously.

Some still believe the third parties would have enjoyed relatively greater success under normal circumstances. Lisa Disch, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and author of The Tyranny of the Two-Party System, speculates that Wellstone's death, combined with the September 11 attacks and a looming war with Iraq, may have resulted in an electorate less willing to take chances with their votes. "If Jesse Ventura had run in this election for the first time, I'm not sure that his irreverent freewheeling style would've won the support that it did four years ago," she says.

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