Collusion or Gentlemen’s Agreement?

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Call it collusion or a gentlemen’s agreement, but three of Minnesota’s minor political parties are working together to climb back into relevance.

In the two decades since professional wrestler-turned politician Jesse Ventura jolted Minnesota with a third-party upset win to become governor, Minnesota’s third parties have been relegated to the political doghouse.

But three of those parties have agreed to stay out of each other’s way in next week’s election, with hopes of improving their chances of securing the 5 percent of the vote necessary to clinch major party status.

The Plan

The plan involves Minnesota’s Independence, Green and Libertarian parties. Libertarians fielded candidates for governor and state auditor, while the Independence Party took the secretary of state’s race. The Green Party put up a U.S. Senate candidate.

As the only two parties with major party status in Minnesota, Democrats and Republicans alone enjoy the benefits of bigger public campaign subsidies and automatic ballot access. Chairs of all three minor parties say if their ploy pays off this year, their paths will be easier in 2020 and 2022, and give Minnesota voters a more visible alternative.

“It can work, it should work, and at least for a couple of us, I think it will work,” Independence Party Chairman Phil Fuehrer said. “Third parties traditionally offer relief valves in tense times, and we’re certainly in those now.”

Fuehrer, who took over as party chair in 2015 but has been involved in Independence Party politics for decades, knows firsthand the pains of being on the outside — and how good the party had it beforehand.

Minnesota’s Independence Party struggled to maintain power after Ventura’s surprise win in 1998, then known as the Reform Party. But it remained a factor in major elections in the years that followed: Tim Penny and Dean Barkley eclipsed 15 percent of the vote in races for governor and U.S. Senate, respectively, and Tom Horner won nearly 13 percent of a 2010 gubernatorial race.

By 2014, however, the Independence Party was relegated to minor party status after barely failing to hit the 5 percent threshold for a second election in a row. That loss cost the party automatic ballot access and most of the public campaign financing available to candidates. The Green Party was also briefly considered a major party, from 2000 until 2004.

Minor parties must gather 2,000 petition signatures in two weeks to secure a candidate’s spot on the ballot.

Legal, and clever

After a misfired bid to capitalize on Republican voters’ unease with President Donald Trump in 2016 by hitching their fortunes to third-party candidate Evan McMullin, Fuehrer started crunching the numbers on third-party votes across parties in Minnesota.

He found Minnesota voters were ready to cast up to 13 percent of the vote for alternative candidates — but the minor parties were stealing votes from each other, keeping everyone under the necessary 5 percent to clinch major party status for the next two election cycles.

“For at least 2018 we need to stop ‘stepping’ on each other and cooperate,” Fuehrer wrote in what he calls his “white paper” broaching the subject with other parties, which he provided to The Associated Press. “It is time to operate outside our comfort zones.”

Other minor parties like the Legal Marijuana Now party and Grassroots Legalize Cannabis Party steered clear of the deal, which could complicate their efforts by pulling away votes from the three cooperating parties.

But the Independence, Green and Libertarian parties eventually settled on what both Fuehrer and Libertarian Party Chairman Chris Holbrook call “a gentlemen’s agreement.” Fuehrer said that over beers, the party chairs hashed out which party would field candidates in each statewide race, yielding to each other based on who already had solid candidates lined up.

Minnesota’s open race for attorney general could have been a slam dunk for major-party status. Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison is saddled with a physical abuse allegation he denies as he attacks Republican Doug Wardlow’s partisan past. But none of the three cooperating parties fielded a candidate. Holbrook said their Libertarian candidate backed out at the last minute, and the only third-party candidate in the race has since thrown his support to Ellison.

“That’s killing me right now to not have a candidate in that race,” Holbrook said with a laugh. “I think it’s a flip of a coin, to be honest. I think our chances are better in Minnesota than ever.”

Hamline University political science professor and election law expert David Schultz said the parties ploy is legal, and clever. While he’s all but certain some of the state’s minor parties could rise up, he doubted whether they could repeat Ventura’s victory in 1998.

“The polarization was nowhere near where it is now, to where people are locked in,” Schultz said. “It’s making it harder, even in Minnesota, for a third party to remain viable.”

Fuehrer worried that midterm electioneering among Trump, Republicans and Democrats could derail their effort this year.

“That’s my greatest fear, that tribalism, the hyper-partisanship will move voters to the extremes,” he said. “But I’ve always been an optimist. I wouldn’t be in the third-party movement, in third-party politics for almost 25 years … without being an eternal optimist.”

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