Minnesota's Tom Horner, Once an Independent, Endorses GOP Candidate for Governor

Horner, a former Republican operative, briefly left for the party of Jesse Ventura to run for governor himself. He returns to GOP to support Jeff Johnson.

By Patrick Condon

Tom Horner, the onetime Republican operative and Independence Party candidate for governor in 2010, waded back into governor's race politics on Tuesday by backing GOP candidate Jeff Johnson in his challenge to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

"I believe Jeff will bring to government a commitment to accountability that's sorely missing," Horner said, as Johnson stood next to him at a Capitol news conference. "We have too many examples of this governor's after-the-fact criticism of legislation and policies that he championed and signed into law."

Asked for an example, Horner cited the Vikings stadium bill that Dayton signed in 2012 that allowed the team to amass significant revenue by selling seat licenses. Dayton, Horner said, "claimed he didn't know that was in it."

Horner said he did support the public effort to help fund the new stadium. The Vikings were clients of his old firm, Himle Horner, although Horner said at the time he never was personally involved in those contracts.

Dayton brushed off Horner's criticisms and his endorsement of Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner. "He didn't support me in 2010 so I'm not surprised," Dayton said of Horner.

Horner once worked as an adviser to a number of prominent Minnesota Republicans, including former Sen. Dave Durenberger and former Gov. Arne Carlson. He went on to co-found Himle Horner, a Twin Cities public relations firm.

In 2010 Horner left the GOP to embrace the Independence Party, the onetime political home of former Gov. Jesse Ventura. This year's Independence Party candidate for governor is Hannah Nicollet; Horner said she never asked for Horner's endorsement. Nicollet said she did not know Horner.

In his run against Dayton and GOP candidate Tom Emmer four years ago, Horner captured nearly 12 percent of the vote with a message of fiscal discipline and social moderation. He and Johnson differ on a number of issues: Horner said he's opposed to making Minnesota a "right to work" state. Johnson supports the measure, which would prohibit unions from requiring new employees to join the union or pay dues even if they are covered by an existing contract. Horner was a vocal opponent of the 2012 amendment to ban gay marriage. Johnson supported passage of the amendment.

Still, Horner called Johnson the best qualified candidate this year. "He listens to all perspectives, he's willing to explore new ideas and he will bring new thinking to the most important challenges facing our state," Horner said.

Things weren't so amicable between Horner and Republicans in 2010. That year, Dayton beat Emmer, now a candidate for Congress, by about 9,000 votes. That led some Republicans to suggest Horner's candidacy was at least partly responsible for the outcome. He had secured endorsements from a number of prominent retired Republican leaders, including Carlson and former Gov. Al Quie.

That led then-GOP state chairman Tony Sutton to brand GOP Horner supporters as "quislings" -- a reference to World War II-era Nazi appeasers. The party's Central Committee officially stripped Carlson and Quie of party membership.

"Our party shouldn't have done that. That was a mistake," Johnson said Tuesday. He said he hoped Horner's support would help him appeal to independents, moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats.

Horner said he had continued to associate occasionally with the Independence Party as recently as earlier this year. But he said it was an important sign for him when Nicollet failed to raise enough money to qualify for a state campaign subsidy.

Nicollet said she was disappointed by Horner's decision, "but if he likes Jeff Johnson's vision, that's his prerogative."

Nicollet said she will participate in the first gubernatorial debate, Oct. 1 in Rochester, and hopes to be able to join the other four scheduled for October.

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