Former television and radio host Cory Hepola began his third-party bid for Minnesota governor Wednesday by casting himself as a landing spot for people fed up with the two major parties.
Hepola has aligned with the just formed Forward Party, meaning he’ll have plenty of structural hurdles to overcome if he’s to wage a viable campaign. The DFL Party, which is working to re-elect Gov. Tim Walz in a difficult political environment, was quick to pan Hepola as a “vanity candidate” and a potential spoiler.
While Hepola acknowledged his own votes for Walz and Democratic President Joe Biden, it might be too simplistic to peg him as solely rooted on the political left.
“I look at it this way: Successful businesses today position themselves as what? Socially progressive, financially thoughtful,” Hepola said. “That would be a good way to phrase what we're about.”
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At his kickoff, he touched on his deep spiritual beliefs (he’s Lutheran), criticized Walz as having abused executive authority, and called the state’s $9.3 billion surplus an embarrassment that cries out for serious tax cuts. He said he favors abortion rights and steps to safeguard natural resources and clean water.
But Hepola – dressed in a skinny checkered purple tie, black suit and black-and-white tennis shoes – offered few specific policy plans at a debut state Capitol news conference, stressing instead that his agenda would focus on education, health care and economic opportunity. Those things, he said, resonate with voters.
“They've been dying for somebody to step up. They just have no choice,” Hepola said. “Those are the key issues that all Minnesotans are excited about whether you lean left or lean right.”
Raised in Perham, Hepola built a media career in the Twin Cities at KARE-11 and then WCCO Radio. He went off the air last month when his consideration of a political run became public. Hepola is married to another former TV reporter, Camille Williams, and the couple has three young children.
Minnesota elected a third-party governor in 1998 with Jesse Ventura running on the Reform Party banner. Hepola is seeking the backing of the nascent Forward Party, a political movement founded by former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang that cropped up in Minnesota just weeks ago.
Hepola will be required to petition for the ballot since the Forward Party isn’t regarded as a major party. Minnesota also has two pro-marijuana major parties expected to field candidates this year.
Forward Party local leader John Denney said Yang is paying attention to Minnesota and plans to make the state a beachhead.
“Andrew is looking at us as the building block of the launching point of the Forward Party right now because we have the election laws that we have,” Denney said, adding that a strong showing is “gonna allow us to become that major party that gives us legal status equal to the Republicans and the Democrats and allows us to break up the duopoly in the best way right here in the state of Minnesota.”
DFLers made clear they’re worried about votes being peeled away from Walz in a tight race. Party Chair Ken Martin issued a blistering statement critical of Hepola.
“The current field of Republican candidates for governor is the most extreme that Minnesota has seen in decades, making Hepola's spoiler campaign even more irresponsible,” Hepola said. “A vote for Cory Hepola is a vote to help the GOP cut taxes for the rich, defund public schools, and force their anti-choice agenda on Minnesotans.” Walz won with 54 percent of the vote in 2018, but that was a banner year for Democratic candidates in Minnesota and elsewhere. Most of Minnesota’s gubernatorial campaigns in modern history have been decided by single-digit margins.
On social media, Republican operatives openly cheered the Hepola entry.
Former Republican Tom Horner, who ran as an Independence Party candidate in a tight 2010 governor election won by DFLer Mark Dayton, said third-party runs are a challenge out of the gate.
“The Democratic Republican parties are so good at leveraging the issue of wasted vote and the scare tactics,” Horner said. “But I think we are at a point where Minnesotans are looking for new messages and different candidates.”
Horner was at Hepola’s news conference but doesn’t have a formal role in the campaign. He said the key task will be to build a base among moderate and disaffected voters of both parties and recruit younger voters to his cause.
“I think that's going to be the secret,” Horner said. “If he can do that, then I think he has a viable opportunity.”