The outsiders: Minnesota's third parties fight for relevance, votes

They lack money, staff and fundraising networks. You won't see them in debates. Many are forced to collect signatures to get on the ballot.

That's the life of Minnesota's third parties. It's one reason why so few voters choose alternatives to the Republican and Democratic candidates, even if they're frustrated with political polarization. And it helps explain why no third-party candidate has won in Minnesota since former Gov. Jesse Ventura's 1998 upset victory.

"The intense partisanship today, it is holding most voters in place," University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said in an interview. "If you affiliate with the Democratic or Republican party, you’re very unlikely to vote for another candidate – even if you’re a little disgruntled about it."

This week, FOX 9 talked with three leaders of the third-party movement: Independence party governor candidate Hugh McTavish, Honesty Oath party founder Stephan Quie, and Legal Marijuana Now party chairman and state auditor candidate Tim Davis.

All three are running to advance an issue they believe in. For McTavish, it's his idea for jury democracy, a system where no legislation could pass unless approved by a jury of randomly selected voters. For Quie, it's to change the political discourse. And for Davis, it's to legalize recreational marijuana.

Getting promoted

In some ways, Minnesota treats its minor parties well. Under state law, they can get promoted to major-party status if one of their statewide candidates gets at least 5% of the vote.

Minnesota's two marijuana parties, Legal Marijuana Now and the Grassroots Cannabis party, became major parties in 2018 this way. Major-parties don't have to gather signatures to get candidates on the ballot.

But what Minnesota gives, it can quickly take away. The 5% rule is unrelenting, and both marijuana parties face a potential demotion this year. Both are only running candidates in two of the four statewide races.

"It's an honor to get 5%. It's up to the parties to keep it. That's what we're trying to do," Davis said in an interview over lunch at a northeast Minneapolis restaurant. 

Sensing that the two marijuana parties could siphon votes from their candidates, Democrats in the state Capitol adopted the issue and now support legalizing recreational marijuana. The DFL-controlled House passed a bill in 2021 but it stalled in the Republican-led Senate.

There could be a time when the marijuana parties are no longer needed, Davis said.

"What is that point? When we get legalization and the people of Minnesota can grow some of their own," he said. "I don't think that's an impossible task."

Struggling to break through

Under McTavish's jury democracy system, at least 500 randomly selected voters would debate, amend, and then vote on each issue. A new slate of jurors would be called to St. Paul for each proposal. Strong support from the jury would pressure the elected Legislature to pass a particular measure, McTavish said.

"It's really a revolutionary idea," he said. 

McTavish said he's been frustrated that the idea hasn't gotten the attention he thinks it deserves. People like the concept when he talks with them one-on-one, he said.

"It's hard to break through," he said. "It's very difficult to raise money as a third-party candidate because people donate mostly out of fear of the Republican or Democrat and also partially they donate because they want to back a winner -- and third-party candidates are unlikely to be winners."

McTavish, who owns a pharmaceutical testing lab in St. Paul, has paid for some television ads and billboards. He said the billboards will stay up through the Nov. 8 election but he wouldn't "bankrupt myself" to further his campaign.

McTavish said DFL Gov. Tim Walz and Republican rival Scott Jensen are "unacceptable" candidates. McTavish disagrees with Walz's COVID-19 policies, while he says Jensen was wrong to suggest jail time for a political opponent. 

Changing politics

Quie is running a write-in campaign for state representative in northeast Minneapolis under the Honesty Oath party that he created. Under the oath, candidates can't take money from lobbyists or political action committees, and they're banned from using campaign social media accounts.

"How can we create something that holds politicians to a higher standard, that gives constituents belief and faith in the people they elect?" he said in an interview. "Because if we don’t have belief and faith in them, then I don’t think our democracy will be healthy or sustaining."

Quie is the grandson of former Gov. Al Quie, a Republican who also served 20 years in Congress. Stephan Quie said his grandfather told him that running as a third-party candidate is an "uphill battle."

So far, he's the only candidate, but Quie said he hopes to grow the party in future elections. 

"Our goal is not to win in November. It's not win or bust on Nov. 8," he said. "My goal is to be the young one who says, what if we did politics differently?"

Quie was unable to meet the signature requirement to be listed on the ballot, meaning a write-in bid was the only option.

The same requirement befell Cory Hepola, the former talk radio host turned third-party governor candidate, who ended his short-lived bid in May after failing to get enough signatures. Hepola was the only Minnesota candidate for the Forward party, launched by former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang.