Why Voters Don't Care About Tuesday's Elections

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Tim Penny is making a strong third-party run for governor of Minnesota — and no one's paying attention. Between the tragic death of Senator Paul Wellstone, the hubbub over his memorial service, and Walter Mondale's decision to take Wellstone's place on the ballot, most Americans can be excused for not noticing Penny and his opponents. Too bad, because they're locked in the nation's most interesting governor's race — one that just might be a blueprint for other candidates.

Penny, Democrat Roger Moe and Republican Tim Pawlenty (incumbent Jesse Ventura, having enough of public life, declined to run again) are in a three way tie, something rarely seen in American elections but increasingly the norm in Minnesota. Moe, who has been majority leader in the state senate for 21 years, is holding the Democratic base — urban voters in the Twin Cities and union members in the Northeastern portion of the state. Pawlenty, the young state House majority leader, has the support of suburban voters outside Minneapolis and St. Paul and rural towns. And Penny is winning the southern portion of the state, where he's from, and finishing a close second in almost all the other areas.

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But why is an independent like Penny pulling in these kinds of numbers? Ventura did it by bringing out new voters — cynical young men who never voted before. But most of these men aren't planning on voting for Penny. Instead, he's drawing broad support from the middle, all those moderates who don't associate themselves with either party. Usually, some hold their noses and choose a Republican or Democrat. Most, however, especially in a midterm election, just stay home. Penny's made a special effort to win their support, and Ventura's success proved to them that a vote for a third party candidate is not always a waste of chads.

It's a strategy that's worked well for Penny. But it's not being used elsewhere; most moderates who don't live in Minnesota will stay home Tuesday. That's surprising when so much is at stake. The House and Senate are both ruled by razor-thin majorities, the President is leading one war and preparing another. The reason for this voter apathy? Neither major party has made a compelling case for why you should vote for them.

With so much at stake, neither party is willing to take a risk. Democrats and Republicans instead are working hard to energize their base. As for the moderates, neither side knows how to win them over, so candidates have been trying to woo just enough moderate votes to put them over the top. They do it by running cautious campaigns. Most Democrats have been trumpeting their support for President Bush's handling of the war on terrorism and his saber rattling at Iraq. Republicans have been talking constantly about their efforts to pass a Medicare prescription drug benefit and no longer mention privatizing social security. Listening to the campaign ads, it's hard to tell which party is which.

This complete absence of a real political discussion has put most voters to sleep. That means it's unlikely that there will be any change in the balance of power. The Senate may change hands but still be closely divided; the House will almost certainly stay Republican, though Democrats may shrink the gap slightly. If that happens, the real loser will be the Democrats. The party without the White House almost always wins seats. Bush, even with his high approval ratings, has shown vulnerability on the economy, corporate corruption and even Iraq. But unlike Newt Gingrich and the Republicans of 1994, Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt haven't countered the White House with any big ideas. They have played it safe and will lose, or more likely, stay exactly where they are.

The races for governors' jobs have been much the same. Overcautiousness has drowned out real debate. That's even more surprising because so much more is at stake in statehouses this year. Most state governments are still in fiscal freefall after two years of shrinking tax receipts. All the easy budget cuts have been made. Tobacco settlement cash and rainy day funds are all gone. Next year governors and legislatures will have no choice but to slash popular programs and raise taxes. While most gubernatorial candidates, Republicans and Democrats, say they will try to solve the budget crunches by cutting spending, most budget analysts say taxes will have to be raised to avoid completely gutting crucial programs. No one likes tax increases. But next year governors will have to choose between that or closing prisons and universities and putting 60 kids in every kindergarten class.

In Minnesota, Pawlenty says he will not raise taxes to close the $3.2 billion deficit the state faces next year. Moe says he will do his best to close the hole with spending cuts. Penny is the only one says the obvious, that the only way to balance the budget is to cut some spending and raise some taxes. That honesty comes naturally; during his years in the U.S. Congress, when he was still a Democrat, he was known for being fiscally conservative, a very rare trait among Dems during the Reagan years.

Despite his risky stance, he's still tied with the other two contenders. Moderate voters seem to respect his courage. Will he win? Who knows. In such a close race, anything could happen. Moe probably enjoys a small advantage going into the final weekend because Wellstone's death may inspire Democrats to swarm to the polls in record numbers. But just by hanging on to a third of the vote going into the final stretch, Penny has proven something to the two major parties. The current political stalemate will only end if one party takes a risk and builds a platform of bold new ideas in an effort to inspire voters. Playing it safe is not an option in politics.