Barkley emerges as viable alternative to mud-caked Coleman and Franken

PLYMOUTH, Minn. — Within moments of sitting down to an interview Friday, Dean Barkley dropped the F-bomb and stated his intention to get drunk that night while preparing for a debate.

Whether or not he was joking on the second count, it’s clear Barkley isn’t your typical Senate candidate. Nor is he your typical former senator.


He calls Washington the “evil empire,” passes on retail politics, says he probably would have been duped into voting for the Iraq war and is buddies with a former pro wrestler who calls the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, an inside job.

Whatever he is, it’s more what he’s not — Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) or Democratic challenger Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenBill Press: Don't forget about Amy Key moments in the 2020 Democratic presidential race so far Al Franken mocks McConnell: 'Like listening to Jeffrey Dahmer complain about the decline of dinner party etiquette' MORE — that has Barkley rising in the polls.

Barkley has taken hold of the massively negative campaign between Coleman and Franken to become the most notable third-party candidate of the 2008 elections, rising to near 20 percent in the polls and recasting the race.

It’s not clear whom he’ll take more votes from in the end, but the damage is significant on both sides.

Despite his heavy use of the title “senator” in his campaign, Barkley plays the consummate outsider, and he reminisces fondly about how he shook up the Senate for a few short weeks in 2002.

After Sen. Paul Wellstone’s (D-Minn.) tragic death in a plane crash, Barkley was appointed as an interim — and Independent — senator. With the chamber split evenly, he was courted heavily by both sides and outside groups.

He demurred and enjoyed his transient ability to spurn both major parties.

In 2006, Barkley returned to the Senate to meet up with a friend to smoke a cigar. Barkley was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt.

“I did the peace sign to all the senators, and they’re like, ‘What the [expletive] is this guy doing back there?’ ” Barkley said.

Finally, a reporter recognized him and asked where he was living. Barkley pointed to his car, jokingly. It made it to print that Barkley was homeless.

Barkley might not be the most politically adept communicator, but in a race in dire need of a different kind of candidate, he has filled a niche.

Anybody who doubts him needs a history lesson. Barkley managed the shock-the-world gubernatorial campaign of fellow third-party candidate Jesse Ventura in 1998, and the parallels between that campaign and this one, a decade later, are several.

Barkley isn’t the household name that Ventura is, but he is running in a race in which the public isn’t enamored with the two mudslinging major-party candidates.

His presence last week pushed Coleman, a veteran of both the Ventura race and this one, to pull all of his negative ads off the air and call on outside groups to follow suit.

Barkley takes complete credit for that. The question now appears to be whether a cleaner campaign between Coleman and Franken closes the under-funded insurgent’s narrow window.

To be sure, Barkley’s hands aren’t completely washed of negativity. One of his radio ads features Barkley and former Gov. Ventura (I), the aforementioned conspiracy theorist, hitting Franken for failing to pay certain taxes and Coleman for allowing the federal deficit to grow $3 trillion on his watch.

It appears that, despite Coleman’s urging, it will continue from the GOP side, too, as the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and the Chamber of Commerce are both running new ads critical of Franken.

“They’ve already cast that; they’re not going to be able to undo what they’ve been doing for a year,” Barkley said. He admitted that a month is a long time in politics, but noted, “You haven’t had to watch these for the last six months. People aren’t going to forget the ads.”

Barkley said Friday that he raised about $65,000 over the last month and was setting up a 20-person fundraising phone bank. He is producing television ads that he hopes to be able to run.

He said he has now earned enough media attention to make him competitive, but others aren’t so sure.

{mospagebreak}Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump administration installs plaque marking finish of 100 miles of border wall Sanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change Schumer votes against USMCA, citing climate implications MORE (N.Y.), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), suggested last week that Barkley is more of a flash in the pan than a contender, even as Barkley appears to be taking an increasing number of votes from the GOP candidate in the race.

Schumer posited that older Democratic voters were drawn to Barkley because of the negative campaigning, but are now moving back into the Democratic column.

“My general view is that third-party candidates peak about a month before the election, and then they go down as people realize the race is more and more serious,” Schumer said.


Barkley, who has run for Senate twice and never cracked double digits, has been between 17 and 19 percent in four of five independent polls this month. Franken recently has supplanted Coleman as front-runner in the same number of polls.

Most of Barkley’s rise appears to be coming from independent voters previously aligned with Coleman. While Coleman has led by double digits among independents for much of the campaign, the three candidates are now splitting those voters relatively evenly, according to recent polls by Quinnipiac University and SurveyUSA.

That Quinnipiac poll, released Tuesday, had Franken at 38 percent, Coleman at 36 percent and Barkley at 18 percent.

Franken spokeswoman Colleen Murray called Barkley a “serious candidate.”

“Minnesota has a history of a strong third party, and he’s a serious candidate in this race, but we’re focused on Al Franken’s message,” Murray said.

Coleman spokesman Mark Drake said his candidate is the only fiscal conservative in the race.

“Rather than comment on Dean or Al, our focus is on sharing with Minnesotans our belief that we can’t tax and spend our way out of our economic crisis,” Drake said.

Barkley’s fellow Independence Party candidate, congressional hopeful David Dillon, said Barkley is doing well because he’s liberated and can speak freely, even if that could spell bad things when his tongue gets a bit loose.

“He’s probably going to get himself in trouble — me too, I suppose,” Dillon said with a laugh. Dillon, who is pulling just shy of 10 percent in retiring Rep. Jim Ramstad’s (R-Minn.) district, added that he and Barkley can talk about things like Social Security reform more freely.

Barkley might have been a candidate for Congress himself, as Democrats tried to woo him to run in the neighboring 6th district against Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannEvangelicals shouldn't be defending Trump in tiff over editorial Mellman: The 'lane theory' is the wrong lane to be in White House backs Stephen Miller amid white nationalist allegations MORE (R-Minn.).

It’s been a long journey for someone who turned down that race, tried to get Ventura to run for Senate and ruled out running himself until a job opportunity fell through.

But he likes where it’s going.

“Timing has a lot to do with everything in this country,” Barkley said. “This might be the right timing. It might be; it might not be. We’ll see.”