The Independence Party is back in a few areas

Control of the Legislature may have turned from the Republicans to the DFL on Nov. 6, but the state's two biggest parties weren't the only players in this year's election drama. The Independence Party -- which came to prominence with Jesse Ventura -- is back.

In Willmar, Bruce Vogel felt the IP's presence. He was out collecting the last of his campaign signs on Friday, reflecting on his defeat by DFLer Mary Sawatzky.

It was a tough race for the first term Republican. He lost by 808 votes. There was a lot of outside money coming in, dozens of pieces of literature mailed by both sides, and a barrage of radio ads. But Vogel had one number firmly in mind.

"Fourteen hundred and 57 votes. Not a lot, but more than what the margin of victory was," he said.

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Those 1,457 votes went to the Independence Party candidate, Zach Liebel. And while there's no way to know for sure where those IP votes might have gone otherwise -- or even if those voters would have shown up at the polls at all -- there are some clues. For instance, Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by more than 900 votes in Vogel's district.

Vogel isn't alone in thinking an IP candidate might have cost him the election. First term Republican Rep. Rich Murray in Albert Lea was beaten under similar circumstances. Scott Dutcher lost his House bid to the DFL mayor of Elbow Lake, Jay MacNamar.

Dutcher lost by 255 votes -- just over 1 percent. IP candidate Dave Holman topped 6 percent. Dutcher suspects his potential constituents may have been trying to signal their unhappiness with the fierce and negative campaign that ran on radio and in mailboxes during the legislative campaign. And in a conservative district, Dutcher said he thinks he took it hardest.

"The amount of negative money that was being spent this year was just so overwhelming that there was a section of the population that said, 'I'm not going to vote for a Democrat or Republican, I'm going to vote for the Independent. Kind of a protest vote," he said.

Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier says the effect is small, but it's something Minnesota hasn't seen from the IP before. The party is running candidates in outstate races, they're adjusting to fit the politics of the district and bucking their reputation as a paler blue version of the DFL.

But Schier doesn't think it's the second coming of Minnesota's third party. He says playing the spoiler in a handful of House races isn't enough to retain their status as a major party -- with their own line on the ballot, and not just an also-ran among write-in candidates. That will take getting 5 percent of the vote statewide in two years.

"Maybe they're taking their eye off the ball here a little bit, because at the end of the day, they're going to have to go where the voters are loosely affiliated if they're really going to make gains, and that's probably going to be the suburbs," Schier said.

The IP isn't making any apologies, though.

I will be the first one to admit, we do spoil elections," said IP party chair Mark Jenkins. "And we're going to continue to do that until one of two things happens: Either we start spoiling elections for both candidates, and we start to represent the main stream as sitting legislators, or governor, at the State Capitol, or, until the other two parties recognize there is a vast, vast gap between their ideologies that we're trying to represent."

In the meantime, though, they'll have to focus on getting a statewide candidate who can keep them above that 5 percent threshold. Gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner's 12 percent finish in 2010 will only keep the IP on the ballot until 2014.

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