Mar 3, 2022 - Politics

Independent candidates threaten to shake up Minnesota's close races

Photo illustration of a vote button with a piece taken out as if it's a pie chart.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The prospect of third-party candidates appearing up and down Minnesota ballots is raising the blood pressure of state Democrats.

Driving the news: Cory Hepola, a former WCCO Radio host and KARE11 anchor, formally announced an independent bid for governor this week.

The big picture: Democrats worry that third-party candidates could tip the scales to Republicans in close races, including DFL Gov. Tim Walz's re-election bid and seats that will determine control of the state Legislature, this November.

What they're saying: Minnesota DFL Party chairman Ken Martin blasted Hepola as "another celebrity vanity candidate that could hand the Governor's office" to Republicans."

What he's saying: Hepola, who plans to seek an endorsement of Andrew Yang's newly formed Forward Party, dismissed the "spoiler" talk, saying he prefers to see himself as a "disruptor," like Netflix shaking up "Big Cable."

  • Describing himself as "socially progressive, financially thoughtful," Hepola said his top priorities — economic opportunity, education and better health care — will resonate with voters "whether they lean left or right."

Between the lines: Minnesota has elected independents before (See Gov. Jesse Ventura), but running a winning campaign from outside the two-party system takes a lot of cash and a candidate who can break through the noise.

  • Which side Hepola ultimately pulls more votes from, if he does end up on the ballot, will depend on who Republicans nominate and where he lands on major issues facing the state.

Zoom in: Hepola's rollout has so far been light on specifics, though he said he voted for President Joe Biden in 2020 and supports abortion rights, two positions more likely to attract Democrats.

  • Yes, but: He also echoed Republicans in criticizing the surplus as "embarrassing" and expressed support for tax reform, though he declined to provide details on what that might look like.

Zoom out: The gubernatorial contest isn't the only high-stakes race that could feel effects of a third-party run.

  • The Forward Party is recruiting candidates for other offices, and the state's two major parties dedicated to legalizing marijuana are poised to again play a role in close legislative and congressional races.

Meanwhile, many Democrats privately let out a sigh of release when Richard Painter opted to run for Congress after floating independent bids for governor or attorney general.

  • A Forward Party organizer said he's still looking to find a candidate for that race.

Flashback: Third-party candidates took a notable share of the vote in a number of extremely close races in 2020, including the 1st Congressional District and battleground Senate seats, and in the 2018 race for attorney general.

  • Democrats have cried foul over marijuana candidates who appeared to have GOP ties running in some of those competitive districts last election.

What to watch: Whether Yang and the Forward Party can deliver a national fundraising base could impact how serious Hepola's campaign becomes.


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