Leaders of the Independence Party of Minnesota are disowning their own nominee for U.S. Senate.
Self-proclaimed tea party member Steve Carlson won the primary with slightly more than 2,100 votes, defeating Kevin Terrell, the candidate party leaders had chosen to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken, lost his primary bid. Terrell received just 1,376 votes.
Given Carlson’s primary win, several prominent Independence Party members say they're worried about its future.
"We won't support Mr. Carlson. He has never sought our support," Independence Party Chair Mark Jenkins said. "I've followed his website, followed his stances on the issues. He doesn't even begin to reflect the Independence Party's views on issues."
The party has seen its fortunes fall following its emergence as a force in Minnesota politics. In 1998, Jesse Ventura, the state's best known Independence Party member took the stage in Shakopee and declared victory in the race for governor. That night, Ventura was a member of the Reform Party, which he later transformed into the IP.
"The American dream lives on in Minnesota because we shocked the world," he said then.
Several Independence Party members said this week that they are shocked at what's happened to the party, which for years has qualified as a major party like the Democrats and Republicans.
They are aghast at the selection of Carlson, the Independence Party’s candidate for Congress in the 4th District in 2010 and 2012. Among other things, he has defended a Missouri Senate candidate's remarks about "legitimate rape," alleged a war on white males and said the person who shot and killed Travon Martin "provided a valuable service."
Carlson, who could not be reached for comment, has posted several rambling video monologues on his website. One tells voters that he is "a serious politician who writes, performs and raps." Others cover everything from the federal health care law to his opposition to light rail transit and a call for stronger prohibitions against usury.
But Carlson's victory on Tuesday means that on the November ballot he will appear on the top of the ticket for the Independence Party.
"I'm a Minnesotan," he said in a video posted in July. "I can carry this party forward this year."
Low voter turnout and Carlson's Scandinavian name are probably the two biggest reasons he defeated Terrell, Jenkins said.
But the party has other problems. Hannah Nicollet, the endorsed candidate for governor, failed to qualify for a public subsidy that would have helped fund her campaign. She needed to raise $35,000 from other sources to qualify for the subsidy, which would have totaled about $178,000.
Despite Carlson's win and Nicollett's troubles, Jenkins sought to downplay the party's problems.
"There aren't any issues that we haven't faced before which is struggling for the resources to promote our candidates broader throughout the state," he said.
However, this year’s election is critical for the party because at least one statewide candidate has to receive 5 percent of the vote or more for it to maintain major party status. Failing to do so would mean losing the public subsidy and instant ballot access.
Past Independence Party gubernatorial candidates Tim Penny, Peter Hutchinson and Tom Horner easily exceeded that mark.
Jenkins said he and other leaders will redouble their efforts to ensure the IP remains a major party.
But others are worried. Former IP Chair Jack Uldrich characterized the state of the party as "unhealthy."
"We're clearly not capturing the public’s attention," Uldrich said. "We're not garnering additional support, nor are we garnering the necessary financial resources to really build a viable party."
Others say Carlson's win was a "devastating result" for a party trying to find an identity.
The biggest short-term concern is maintaining major party status, said Matt Lewis, who sits on the IP board but has not actively participated in party activities since February.
"I don't think anyone can argue that the trend lines are good," said Lewis, who added that the party structure is such that it is always "one big name or a millionaire away" from having a candidate who can generate a populist following.
A few party leaders are still optimistic, as several issues could generate support for IP candidates this year. The party continues to bill itself as a destination for those who are liberal on social issues and conservative on fiscal matters. It also adopted a party platform calling for the legalization of marijuana in Minnesota.
Peter Tharaldson, a long-time party member running to be a local party chair in the 5th District, said the IP tends to fare poorly in primaries but bounce back in the general election.
"But if you look at it as a movement in terms of the electorate side and you look at recent polls, you actually see that the Independence Party identity, not just independents but the Independence Party identity, is actually up considerably," he said.