When Sarah Palin and the “drill, baby, drill” chant rose to prominence at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, two leading Minnesota Republicans reacted in very different ways. And their responses represent two distinct directions that state voters could choose in the governor’s race next month.

The convention inspired Tom Horner, a public relations executive and former Senate staffer, to quit the Republican Party and run for governor on the Independence ticket (which put pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura in the governor’s office in 1998).

“What really tipped me over, frankly, was the nomination of Sarah Palin,” Horner said this month. “To have a Sarah Palin out there as a viable candidate for the vice presidency, I thought just reflected the party that has lost its way.”

By contrast, the convention marked the end of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s “green period,” in which he signed an aggressive global-warming bill and put a moratorium on new coal-fired electricity until the state or the feds start pricing carbon pollution. As Pawlenty’s presidential ambitions became clear, he reversed course on energy, criticizing climate legislation in a letter to Congress.

Pawlenty isn’t running for governor this year, but the Republican candidate, State Rep. Tom Emmer, stands with the new Pawlenty. Emmer voted against the state’s landmark 2007 Next Generation Energy Act and promises to repeal its renewable electricity standard if elected. He referred to climate science as “Al Gore’s climate porn” in a speech on the state House floor.

If Horner and Emmer represent the struggle for the soul of the Republican Party, they also create an opportunity for Democratic candidate Mark Dayton, who’s leading in polls at 45 percent, compared to Emmer’s 39 and Horner’s 13. Dayton’s term in the U.S. senate reveals a forward-looking record — he co-sponsored the McCain-Lieberman climate bill in 2005 and was a staunch opponent of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

That record should be an asset in a state that has made more environmental progress than it gets credit for. Because of its long, cold winters, Minnesota requires that its building efficiency standards match the strongest in the country. Its renewable electricity standard (25 percent by 2025) and greenhouse gas goal (80 percent cut by 2050) rank among the toughest in the nation.

The state passed complete streets legislation this spring that requires planners to consider walkers, cyclists, transit-riders, and children along with drivers in all road projects. A regional council that governs the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area has had a made (limited) progress in slowing sprawl and promoting compact development. The region is slowly adding light-rail lines and the legislature passed a quarter-cent sales tax increase to support regional transit in 2008. When Pawlenty vetoed the plan, lawmakers overrode the veto.

But it’s not certain this progress will continue. The state faces a $6 billion budget deficit over the next two years, and will need a transit-supporting governor simply to protect its current services, let alone expand them.

And the moratorium on building new coal plants and importing new coal-generated electricity faced a repeal vote this year — introduced by Rep. Emmer. It will likely face another repeal attempt in 2011. Dayton and Horner haven’t said whether they would defend the ban, one of the biggest emissions-cutting steps the state has taken.

State environmentalists have raised concerns about the public relations firm that Horner founded and co-owned until this summer because it has done work for Partners for Affordable Energy, a coal-industry front group. Horner hasn’t commented on the potential conflict of interest.

Tom HornerHorner

Tom Horner (I)

Horner is running on a middle-ground platform that attracted a string of bipartisan endorsements along with the endorsements of several major papers in the state. The Star Tribune says he’s the “serious-minded” choice who doesn’t want to “soak the rich” through new taxes on high earners or “sink the poor” by cutting social programs. Unlike most Republicans running for office, though, he’s been willing to discuss tax increase to fund social services and transit.

Horner’s website speaks in broad terms about a “balanced,” “safe,” and “competitive” energy platform, although the only specific suggestion is to repeal the state’s nuclear-power moratorium. Transit and urban livability groups give him and Dayton credit for being willing to meet and hear them out when Emmer has not.

He attended an environmental debate with Dayton (Emmer skipped), but spent more time criticizing his Republican opponent than shedding light on his own vision for the state.

Mark Dayton (D)

Mark DaytonDayton

Dayton built a reputation during his one-term Senate career as an environmental defender, Iraq war critic, and advocate for a Department of Peace — and as an unpredictable lawmaker who inexplicably closed his office due to terrorism worries.

He’s built his energy platform around an “energy savings fund” that would seal up leaky public and retrofit them with solar panels and other alternative energy. As the fund cuts utility bills, the savings would be reinvested in weatherizing more schools, colleges, and local-government buildings. It’s the sort of program that energy experts praise, because it creates jobs, saves money, and shrinks the demand for energy all at once.

Dayton chose a running mate who authorized the aggressive 2007 energy bill and speaks about the economic potential of transit and high-speed rail lines. He’s paid more attention than most candidates to urban poverty and unemployment, according to Russ Adams of the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability. “Those are the two places where you just see his energy and his passion come out,” Adams said.

He’s given predictable support to corn-based ethanol (a major industry in the state and an environmental and economic boondoggle), boasting that he helped craft the corn-friendly 2002 federal farm bill. But he’s also signaled that he wants to take on the significant problem of farm fertilizer and manure fouling the state’s many lakes and waterways by turning the Pollution Control Agency into
a “Pollution Reduction Agency.”

“To me, that’s a message that he wants to see more protection,” said Steve Morse of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.

Tom Emmer (R)

Tom EmmerEmmer

Emmer’s “climate porn” line has drawn more attention, but statehouse watchers say his hostility to clean energy has been clear since 2007, when he voted against the bipartisan energy act. Michael Noble of the group Fresh Energy called that position “unusual in our state,” noting that voters passed a constitutional amendment two years ago that created a tax to fund waterway and wildlife restoration.

Emmer would like to move the pollution agency to the control of the Agriculture Department, which could be less rigorous in protecting waterways.

He’s offered general support for high-speed rail (unlike his Republican counterpart in Wisconsin, who wants to block a national rail network) and expresses similar support for regional transit, though he hasn’t offered details on either position.

“As a regular user of public transit I believe in the need to continue to develop a system that serves our citizens in a cost effective manner,” he said in a prepared statement. “The efficient movement of people and products is important to our economy.”

However, when the legislature provided new funding for Twin Cities transit two years, overriding the governor’s veto, Emmer sided with Pawlenty in opposing the plan.