Tom Horner is not one of those candidates who always dreamed about being governor.
In fact, he gave the prospect little or no thought until 14 months ago. That was when he was at a social gathering, common for the then-public relations executive, and came upon Independence Party Chairman Jack Uldrich.
In that August 2009 chance meeting, Horner made small talk by asking Uldrich how the party’s search was going for a 2010 governor candidate. The chairman said it was not going so well, and asked if Horner would be interested.
A few weeks later, the two met and Horner’s long-shot campaign for governor began.
With one exception, Jesse Ventura, even big-name third-party candidates can’t crack the two-party system in Minnesota governor’s races. Just ask Tim Penny, a popular former congressmen who finished third in 2002.
But don’t tell Horner he cannot win. He said 2010 is the perfect time for a middle-of-the-road candidate, as he portrays himself. That is, he says, because Republican Tom Emmer is too far right politically and Democrat Mark Dayton is way left, leaving him the logical candidate for a majority of Minnesotans who consider themselves in the political middle.
Even if Horner is correct, however, no third-party movement has the manpower or money the two big parties can throw into campaigns.
To beat Dayton and Emmer, Horner has spent almost his every waking hour in recent months trying to do the difficult or, to many, the impossible.
Horner has done better than many observers expected, but still needs late-campaign movement by voters accustomed to voting for Democrats or Republicans, or not voting at all.
The Independence man who would be governor was raised in Minneapolis and lives in Edina, graduated from St. Thomas University and was long-time public relations executive, who gave up his business to run for governor.
Horner worked for candidate and then U.S. Sen. David Durenberger, rising to chief of staff before heading back to Minnesota and a public relations career. Right out of college, Horner was a reporter, then editor, at a suburban Twin Cities newspaper group.
For years, Horner has worked behind the scenes for Republican campaigns and delivered the GOP side of the story on Minnesota Public Radio and other media venues.
This is his first run for office, which features a four-year term, but Horner said he is well versed in politics.
“I knew exactly what I was getting into,” he said during a day in Duluth and Hermantown.
The Horner campaign does not feel like other major party-efforts. While Emmer and Dayton have the advantage of being able to call on thousands of party faithful to host events, plant signs or just turn out at rallies, the Independence Party has no such broad infrastructure.
Long-time Republican Kelly Herstad drove Horner around while he was in Duluth, after single-handedly setting up a series of events in the area. But while his two rivals could expect rallies of dozen people — or much bigger — on a moment’s notice, Horner made do with small gatherings, such as meeting with three men about forestry and lumber issues in a downtown Duluth office, talking to a small private breakfast group and hitting a variety of media outlets.
While he has aired television commercials, produced signs and handed out buttons, Horner faces a budget smaller than his two main rivals. He said he relies more on word of mouth to tell voters about him.
In one way, Horner picked one of the best years to run outside the two big parties.
“Typically, Minnesota candidates run to the middle,” said Horner, running for an office that pays $120,303 annually.
But Dayton and Emmer show little indication of moderating their political views.
Horner is parading out a line of Democrats and Republicans who like his middle-of-the-road approach. He also is producing supporters from a variety of background, from rural experts to leaders of the state’s largest cities.
Former North Dakota Gov. Allen Olson, a Minnesotan since 1986, said he thinks Horner would do well for rural Minnesota. Olson said he can say that, coming from “one of the most rural sates in the country.”
One of Minnesota’s best-known rural advocates, Jack Geller of the University of Minnesota Crookston, made Horner the first candidate he ever has endorsed. Since Democrats and Republicans got Minnesota into a fiscal problem, they may not be the best ones to get the state out of its mess, the former Grand Forks, N.D., City Council member said.
On the other side of the political coin, Horner gained backing from people like strong Democratic-Farmer-Laborite Joan Niemiec, who served on the Minneapolis City Council for a decade.
“It takes someone with intelligence, courage and the ability to work with people all along the political spectrum to lead in this difficult time we face now,” Niemiec said.
Political experience: No elective experience. Press secretary and chief of staff for U.S. Sen. David Durenberger.
Other background: 20 years in public relations.
Education: Benilde St. Margaret’s High School. St. Thomas University.
Family: Wife, Libby. Three children.