In “Here’s the rub” (March 11), Lawrence R. Jacobs credibly laid out the multiple steps necessary for a Tim Pawlenty comeback in Pawlenty’s likely soon-to-be-announced campaign for a third term as governor after eight years away.
Among the many challenges outlined by Jacobs were, first, that Pawlenty must overcome his recent past as a well-connected Washington, D.C., lobbyist, and second, that he must win Republican Party endorsement against Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, the 2014 Republican nominee who lost decisively to Mark Dayton.
However, Jacobs regrettably — and perhaps unintentionally — ignored the other GOP candidates in the race, one of whom is Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens. I believe that Stephens is the best Republican candidate in the field and has the most upside potential to defeat whomever the DFL nominates.
Don’t believe me? Then believe an unnamed DFL operative who, after Stephens’ announcement, told Star Tribune political reporter J. Patrick Coolican that the DFL should be “terrified” of Stephens’ candidacy. The DFLer went on to describe her as a “smart, sensible suburban woman” and the type of GOP candidate who can crack Republicans’ statewide losing streak.
It’s been nearly 12 years since a Republican won statewide office. Stephens is the party’s best bet. Despite that, certain establishment Republicans see Pawlenty as a potential “savior” candidate for governor, believing that the “secret sauce” that led to his re-election victory in 2006 will work again. He will enter the race with big money, establishment support and a conventional track record.
It’s the Jeb Bush strategy for victory. Line up the big donors, and the rest of the party will follow. But that is now a recipe for defeat.
We learned in 2016 how vacuous and mistaken this strategy is. Big-money and establishment support don’t add up to victory for a pretty simple reason: Voters aren’t looking anymore to follow an establishment that has failed them.
Pawlenty, of all people, should know this. In 2002, he took the Republican endorsement away from a candidate who was the favorite of the big donors. Pawlenty touted himself as a “Sam’s Club Republican,” not a “Country Club Republican.”
Want more evidence? Look no further than next door to Wisconsin and a bit further east to Indiana. In both of those states, voters defeated former U.S.-senators-turned-Washington lobbyists who came home to run for their former seats. In addition, former Wisconsin Gov.-turned-lobbyist Tommy Thompson also failed in his bid to win an open U.S. Senate seat in 2012. It is extremely rare in modern American politics for elected officials who cash in their fame for top lobbyist positions to reclaim their previous statewide offices.
In 2018, Republicans need a different candidate — one with different experience and a different perspective whom voters will look at with fresh eyes. Pawlenty will be running as the candidate of big money from out of state, not as the hockey player with blue-color, working-class roots from South St. Paul. Johnson has lost two statewide races and fails to energize rank-and-file Republicans. On election night in November 2014, when Minnesota Republicans captured control of the Minnesota House, the national networks projected Dayton re-elected at 8:01 p.m.
Stephens is a fresh face in a field of already-knowns — her record as mayor of Woodbury shows that she can marry conservative principles with a common-sense approach that appeals to swing voters in the suburbs, the voting bloc that will likely decide Minnesota’s next governor.
Stephens can introduce herself to the voters in a way that none of the other candidates can. Her record of job creation, executive decisionmaking, budget balancing and principled policymaking hits just the right notes for voters looking for a fresh approach.
In order to break their statewide losing streak, Republicans need a fresh approach with a fresh candidate whose appeal isn’t to one slice or another of the electorate. If Republicans are smart, they will break the mold that has held them back and embrace the new, principled conservative voice that Stephens brings to the race.
It’s their best chance of victory in November.
Steve Wenzel, of Little Falls, is a former DFL member of the Minnesota House (1973 to 2001) and is executive director of the Gordon Rosenmeier Center for State and Local Government at Central Lakes College in Brainerd, Minn.