A group of about 100 of Minnesota’s richest, most politically engaged Republicans filed into a common room last week at the Edition, a chic but anonymous apartment complex in downtown Minneapolis.
The host was former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. He offered no meal, no coffee, no water.
What he offered instead was something far more valuable than the usual cinnamon danish and burned coffee: an opportunity to get in on his own potential comeback bid, which Pawlenty fans see as the best chance for Republicans to take back the governor’s office from the DFL, in a race shaping up as the most significant and wide open in years.
“There was no place to hang your coat,” marveled one participant.
The reason for the spartan digs: compliance with campaign regulators. If Pawlenty spent any money on the meeting, he would have to create a candidate committee and declare it to the campaign finance board before he’s ready to officially join the race.
But the meeting brought him a step closer to ready, say several participants who were there. They spoke to the Star Tribune on the condition they not be identified talking about a private meeting.
Pawlenty announced recently he is leaving his job as CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable — a Washington lobbying group — and considering a run for governor. He served for two terms as Minnesota governor before leaving office in early 2011 and embarking on an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for president in 2012.
Many Republican donors and activists are lukewarm on the current field of GOP contenders. That’s got them buzzing about Pawlenty jumping back into Minnesota politics right when the GOP is on the cusp of full control of state government for the first time in nearly half a century.
The Star Tribune spoke to several people who were at the Pawlenty meeting.
“If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right, and we’re going to win. It appealed a lot to me,” said one.
“It was an ‘A-list’ of donors,” said another.
The rich Rolodex that allowed Pawlenty to pull together the big donors is a double-edged sword. The DFL is already hammering him on his life in “retirement” from politics, during which he has been a Washington-based lobbyist for the nation’s biggest banks, earning $2.7 million in 2016, according to IRS documents
“Tim Pawlenty has spent the last half-decade lobbying on behalf of big banks on Wall Street. Now, big banks and corporations are backing Pawlenty so they can continue to get tax breaks while Minnesota families foot the bill,” said Joe Davis, executive director of the progressive group Alliance for a Better Minnesota.
Ron Eibensteiner, a former chairman of the Minnesota GOP, said the meeting was prompted by deep concern among Pawlenty and the people gathered about the state’s future.
“We’re falling behind,” Eibensteiner said. “What we need is a pro-growth governor.”
Mike McFadden, a wealthy investment banker and the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in 2014, played a leading role in the private discussion, according to other participants. (McFadden did not return a message Monday.)
The meeting comprised both politics and policy.
On the policy front, Pawlenty covered taxes and regulation, health care, education and the imperative that government be ready to embrace but also plan for changes in technology.
A meeting attendee was inspired: “Tim gave a great talk about education and poor kids not getting a fair shot in this state. I loved the passion.”
Another participant confirmed that Pawlenty, who is the last Republican to win a statewide race, can hold an audience’s attention: “He’s still got it,” this person said.
On the politics front, Pawlenty’s key decision should he decide to run will be the party endorsement, conferred by delegates to the GOP state convention in June. Alternately, he could lose at the convention and run in the August primary, or he could skip the convention altogether and run in the primary. A primary strategy will require big money, although Pawlenty would go into the race with the advantage of being well known to Republican primary voters.
Pawlenty was endorsed by the party in 2002 and went on to win. But Republican politics has changed significantly since then, including a standard-bearer in President Donald Trump, whom Pawlenty rejected in 2016 as unfit for the presidency.
“I always encourage candidates to seek the endorsement,” Eibensteiner said. “But in this situation, I don’t know how much value it has at this time for him. A lot of our activists are wanting him to run, and if he gets the endorsement, that’s terrific. If he doesn’t, they still want to see him run.”
At the meeting last week, a show of hands was asked for, to gauge support. An attendee said nearly all the hands went up, 90 percent or more.
In that room, “support” means money, including a maximum donation and help rounding up friends, family and business associates for more. If Pawlenty shows commitments of $1 million in just a few weeks, he would prove to Republican activists he’s serious.
Jeff Johnson, the party’s 2014 nominee and the winner of the recent precinct caucus straw poll, alleged in an e-mail that meeting attendees were instructed to avoid giving money to the state Republican Party. That’s because if Johnson is the endorsed candidate, the party will support him against Pawlenty in a primary.
“Telling all your large donors to stop giving to the state party is pretty shocking. I want my donors to give to my campaign and the party, as every Republican candidate on the ballot is relying on a strong state party to win,” Johnson said. “Throwing the GOP under the bus is not going to lead to victory in November.”
Meeting attendees said they did not recall being told not to give to the state party, although one acknowledged, “The logic is simple.”
Pawlenty’s longtime spokesman Brian McClung did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement last week, McClung said, “The turnout and excitement at the meeting was encouraging. We take it as a very positive sign. Tim is continuing to talk with Minnesotans as he considers a run for governor.”