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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A party that gained prominence when wrestler Jesse Ventura was elected Minnesota governor in 1998 is trying to return to political relevance in the state by harnessing the dismay of Republican voters who refuse to support their presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
For two decades, the Independence Party of Minnesota had been considered a third major party in the state, peaking with Ventura's shocking victory back when it was known as the Reform Party. But in 2014, none of its statewide candidates received 5 percent of the vote for a second consecutive election, causing the party to lose automatic ballot access for state elections.
Seldom a player in presidential politics, the Independence Party saw an opportunity to revive its fortunes this year and endorsed independent candidate Evan McMullin — a former CIA operative and Republican congressional staffer who has been a leader of the "Never Trump" movement.
Independence Party officials say the perceived weakness of Trump as the GOP nominee and Hillary Clinton's lukewarm support among some Democrats in the state give the party its best shot at regaining major party status.
"In the aftermath of this year's election, some party is going to benefit," said Tom Horner, who ran as the party's endorsed candidate for governor in 2010. "I think the Independence Party could grab hold of that."
Party Chairman Phil Fuehrer hadn't even entertained the thought of making a run at regaining major party status until at least 2018, the next election when Minnesota's statewide offices will be on the ballot. But after McMullin, a Utah native, announced his candidacy and contacted the party earlier this month, Fuehrer started putting the pieces together to get McMullin on Minnesota's ballot.
Within a week, the party collected more than the 2,000 signatures necessary to secure McMullin a spot on the state's presidential ballot. He is scheduled for a visit to Minnesota Friday at the State Fair.
There's no national Independence Party, but several states have top-tier third parties like Minnesota. Fuehrer said he's connecting with parties in Oregon and elsewhere to continue building support for McMullin.
Campaign spokesman Rick Wilson said Minnesota is a top target for McMullin, who has presented his candidacy as a conservative alternative to Trump. His appeal could be strong among Minnesota Republican voters, who delivered one of Trump's worst performances in an otherwise dominant route to the GOP nomination. Trump finished third behind Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in the state.
"There's a great opportunity to get major party status back, which strengthens us for 2018, strengthens us for 2020," Fuehrer said.
The party's fall to minor status in 2014 finalized the precipitous drop for the party of Ventura, the one-term governor who leveraged his loud personality and an underfunded but energetic campaign to win the election.
Don Anderson recalls being unhappy with the two major party choices and voting for Ventura "just to make a statement." After visiting the Independence Party's booth Tuesday at the State Fair to learn about McMullin, the self-described conservative Democrat said it's a similar feeling this time around.
"I like an alternative. Especially if you're not fond of" Clinton or Trump, the Maplewood electrician said.
Horner, too, is considering a vote for McMullin — not because he thinks McMullin would make a good president but because he thinks it would help the Independence Party movement.
Fuehrer said he hopes his party can regain its footing and grow to be more than a "mini-major" and spoiler party by pulling in new supporters like Anderson and Horner.
"It is a good omen for us and something that we can build off of," he said.
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