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The Independence Party's Tom Horner arrived at the Sheraton Ridgedale to a welcome fit for a frontrunner. Supporters mobbed the entrance, jockeying for photos and chanting "Horner, Horner, Horner." The candidate greeted many of them each personally, often by name.

Independence Party’s election night shindig upbeat despite distant 3rd-place finish

Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

IP gubernatorial nominee Tom Horner didn’t have a hard time cracking smiles on Tuesday night. “We really did make difference,” he claimed, “not only in this campaign, but going forward. That’s our victory tonight.” (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

The Independence Party’s Tom Horner arrived at the Sheraton Ridgedale to a welcome fit for a frontrunner. Supporters mobbed the entrance, jockeying for photos and chanting “Horner, Horner, Horner.” The candidate greeted many of them each personally, often by name.

But already, the Horner campaign’s dampened expectations were apparent. The candidate himself said he and the staff felt “terrific,” and that he saw a lot of enthusiasm in the final days. But it took only a matter of minutes for Horner and his supporters to begin repeating the first part of the beaten campaigner’s catechism: “No matter what happens tonight…”

“I knew from the get-go what a daunting challenge it was to run for governor,” Horner said as he arrived. “We ran the campaign that I wanted to run.”

Fewer than three hours after he arrived, Horner was on stage in front of a thinning crowd of backers, thanking his staff and supporters after a grueling, and ultimately unsuccessful, 10-month campaign. Horner ended up with 12 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s election.

“We really did make a difference, not just in this campaign, but going forward,” Horner said. “That’s our victory tonight.”

In an election cycle when discontent among voters was palpable and both major party gubernatorial candidates had considerable flaws, many saw 2010 as a real opening for a third-party candidate. But Horner wasn’t able to take advantage.

“I really thought this climate was as good as it gets,” said Independence Party candidate for the 6th congressional district Bob Anderson long before Horner’s concession. “There’s just so much dissatisfaction.”

The challenge, as Horner admitted throughout the campaign, was always bound to be name recognition and fundraising. On both fronts, the campaign failed by its own standards.

“The big thing for us was the money,” Horner said in an interview after his closing speech Tuesday night, adding that when all the money is counted, the campaign is expecting to fall about $1 million short of its original $2.5 million fundraising goal.

The campaign spent $1.1 million on the race, according to late October filings, leaving it far short of the millions brought to bear on the race by DFLer Mark Dayton, Republican Tom Emmer and a host of third-party groups, many of which took direct aim at Horner himself in the final month before Election Day.

Horner bought just $18,000 in television ads for his final push, compared to the nearly $700,000 purchased by Dayton and Emmer over the final two weeks. While the two major party candidates barnstormed the state by plane, the Horner campaign dispatched three buses across the state, with surrogates manning two of them.

Despite being outgunned at the bank and on the air, Horner refused to attribute his loss entirely to dollars and cents. “That’s an overwhelming number to compete with,” he said of the spending by other candidates and PACs in the race.  “But if voters thought I could have won, I think $2.5 million would have withstood that.”

In the eyes of some Independence Party faithful and outside analysts, Horner lost the election weeks ago, after spiking upward in polls in mid-September and then failing to build on that momentum. “It was about three weeks ago he needed a big push,” former Jesse Ventura campaign manager and Independence Party U.S. Senate candidate Dean Barkley said Tuesday. “He didn’t get the money. I hate to say it, but money matters in politics. He didn’t have it.”

A host of newspaper endorsements in the late going led to little if any Horner bump in the polls. Mid-September, when he reached 18 percent in one survey, proved to be the high-water mark in Horner’s support. Around the same time, the campaign reported pulling in $40,000 a day or more in donations.

But ultimately, some say, the campaign’s improved polling performance was a mixed blessing. Horner’s heightened standing in the race not only brought him more money – it made him the object of sharpened attacks from both establishment parties and their PAC supporters at a time when he still didn’t have the money and organization to counterattack in any sustained way. Many of the attacks on Horner centered on his perceived electability, a more sensitive issue than usual in an election perceived to be a crossroads proposition.

It’s no surprise, then, that disgust over “wasted vote” worries was front and center at IP headquarters on Tuesday night. A group called FairVote Minnesota that favors ranked-voting systems received a shout-out from IP chair Jack Uldrich. “We don’t have a system that allows people to vote with their hearts,” he said from the stage.

Horner was never able to make large inroads with self-described Republicans or Democrats, according to polls, despite concern among both parties that he’d siphon away a fatal margin of their voters. Ultimately, Horner ended up around the high end of the 8 to 12 percent support level that Hamline University professor David Schultz had predicted before the election.

While Horner was unable to bring the Independence Party back to the governor’s mansion for the first time in 12 years, the mood at the party’s headquarters never turned dour as the evening wore on, though the crowd did thin considerably. Chants still filled the banquet hall as Horner took the stage to concede, and there was even a hint of optimism as he suggested he’d be ready and willing to work with any new administration if asked.

“We gave people an opportunity to feel engaged,” Horner said. “We demonstrated there is a center in Minnesota politics.”

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