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The Revolt of the Third Party Candidates

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Another week, another third-party candidate fighting to debate.

Last week, it was the Independence Party's gubernatorial candidate, Hannah Nicollet, who said she was planning to sue Hamline University because it refused to let her into its October 19 debate. This time, the fight's over Green Party attorney general candidate Andy Dawkins. But instead of a lawsuit, the third-party candidates are teaming up to try to change the system.

See also: Independence Party's Hannah Nicollet Plans to Sue For the Right to Debate

Yesterday, Dawkins and the Independence Party's attorney general candidate, Brandan Borgos, met in a mostly empty room at the Capitol to voice their problem: that for KSTP's upcoming attorney general debate on November 1, the TV station had only invited the three major-party candidates -- Borgos, the GOP's Scott Newman, and DFL incumbent Lori Swanson. With that design, they left out Dawkins.

Why's that such a big problem? Well, from the way things look, the KSTP debate is the only one that Swanson and Newman will actually be attending. While the third-party candidates have already met for one debate and are set for two more, the GOP and DFL picks have pretty much stayed at home.

That's an issue, they say. Candidates need to be able to confront each other on important topics like civil rights or drug laws. When they can't, that's unfair to the other candidates and to the voters.

For both Dawkins and Borgos, it was the last straw in a race that they say has been full of no-shows and frustration. It was just another way for the two most powerful parties to control the system, and they want to stop it.

"Is anyone surprised?" Dawkins asked, his hands waving in the air. "Is anyone particularly happy that we're all standing her having this stupid conversation? Of course not."

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The moderator of the debate, KSTP chief political correspondent Tom Hauser, responded on Twitter, insisting there was no master plan at all, just politics as usual:

He's right. While the third-partiers may have a philosophical point, including only major-party candidates in debates is the norm. Just look at the 2010 gubernatorial race, where the debates featured just the three major-party candidates: Independence, GOP, and DFL. The other candidates? Shut out.

Plus, that "major party" status shows a party's serious. It means one of the party's candidates got 5 percent of the vote recently. The IP's Nicollet admitted as much when we talked with her last week, telling us that her status as a major candidate was a big reason why she planned to sue after getting kicked out of a recent debate. "That should matter," she said.

Suddenly opening up a debate to everybody can also make it get out-of-hand really fast, with candidates who aren't actually serious about doing any real campaigning (anybody remember Vermin Supreme, the wizard-resembling presidential candidate from New Hampshire who wears a boot on his head?). When you're left with a swath of questionable candidates, each grasping for a tiny piece of less than half an hour of airtime, the actual value of your debate goes down the tube.

But that still doesn't mean Dawkins should be denied. We asked why the Green Party candidate deserved to be the exception, and both he and Borgos said it comes down to democracy. Dawkins isn't some fly-by-night candidate. He's been campaigning for months, making himself known and even getting 7 percent of the vote in the only poll that's been taken of the race (which, to be fair, is from July, before the primary elections). To ignore that, they say, would just reinforce the two-party system.

"This is something that has been systemic for all the campaigns in this race," Borgos told us. "I would really appreciate just a little bit of conversation."


Send your story tips to the author, Robbie Feinberg. Follow him on Twitter @robbiefeinberg.