The temperature was in the mid-80s and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty had already logged 6 miles on a recent Saturday, but he still looked like a competitive distance runner as he bounded up the summer festival parade route in Lakeville, running past cheese-curd trucks, smoochy teenage couples and the beer tent.
“I’m at a point in my career when I can take significant risk,” Pawlenty, 57, said in an interview, over the din of bagpipes and marching bands. “Since I have no further political ambitions, I’m doing it for one reason, and that’s to get things done.”
The Republican primary contest between Pawlenty and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson pivots around an elusive opportunity for the Minnesota GOP: full control of state government for the first time in half a century. If the Republican candidate wins the governor’s race in November and the party holds its current legislative majorities, a conservative chief executive with an allied House and Senate could finally act on long-standing GOP vows to lower taxes and shrink government.
Aboard an RV wrapped with the logo “Overthrow the status quo,” past Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store in Jordan and endless rows of corn and beans outside Mankato, Johnson is traveling the state to make the case that Republicans should support him over a former two-term governor because he’s the strongest candidate to win in November — despite having lost the 2014 race to Gov. Mark Dayton and despite a previous loss in the 2006 race for attorney general.
Johnson, 51, is trying to leverage his more full-throated support for President Donald Trump to woo the president’s fan base. He repeatedly points out that Pawlenty, shortly before the 2016 election, publicly called Trump unfit for office. Pawlenty also has to defend eight previous years as governor in which the state was wracked with regular budget deficits, as well as face likely DFL attacks for the millions he made lobbying for Wall Street after his failed 2012 presidential run.
“The election would be about the past” if it’s Pawlenty, Johnson said.
Pawlenty’s return to Minnesota politics has not come without complications. He skipped the Republican state convention in June, unsure how 2,000 GOP activists would greet his comeback bid. Johnson won the party’s backing, but Pawlenty’s huge advantages in campaign fundraising and political star power have him in the front-runner’s position.
Johnson has a genial air and the polite manners of a khaki-clad suburban dad, but he talks tough when it comes to the state government he wants to lead.
At a small event at the Mankato office of the wealth management firm Weilage Advisory Group, Johnson unloaded on state workers. “Corruption exists in our state agencies,” Johnson said, citing recent reports of child-care fraud. “Someone knew about it, someone turned a blind eye. And those people shouldn’t be fired. They should go to jail,” he said to applause.
Once an attorney for Cargill, Johnson has a cheeky proposal: that state regulators should spend a day doing the job of the regulated industry, such as farming for a day, so they would know what it’s like. He said state government has become overly intrusive and that as governor he would give a strong pull back on the leash.
“Minnesotans deserve a government where we have changed the attitude in our state agencies, from that of telling everybody else how to live their lives and how to run their business and how to raise their kids and how to farm their land to actually serving the people who pay their salaries,” Johnson said.
On the outskirts of Mankato, Johnson visited the Here We Grow Early Childhood Center, in a renovated schoolhouse in the countryside, where children help cultivate cucumbers and sugar snap peas. The waiting list is 100 families long.
Here We Grow founder Elizabeth Bangert said state regulations are driving child-care centers out of business, creating desperate shortages, especially in greater Minnesota.
Bangert and a roundtable of child-care workers recalled regulatory frustrations such as prohibitions on plungers in bathrooms and citations for insufficient learning toys and other seemingly minor issues that can lead to sanctions.
Johnson probably had their votes, but there were only a handful.
“We’re somewhere three or four times a day talking to actual people face-to-face, and that’s been extremely positive,” Johnson said. But Pawlenty has dwarfed him in fundraising, leaving Johnson lacking the kind of resources necessary to spread his message to the whole state.
As his RV made its way down the highway, Johnson made a few fundraising calls. He left voice mails and got a soft commitment from a donor, who said he would contribute — later.
Meanwhile, Pawlenty has racked up $2.1 million from donors since joining the race in April.
His challenge has been to explain to Minnesota Republicans his rationale for another term as governor, while being careful not to alienate the suburban voters who will be pivotal to winning the November election.
But the primary comes first, and Pawlenty has charged hard at some issues of vital importance to the new Trump base of the Republican Party. He has called for greater crackdowns on immigration and welfare fraud, while highlighting his support for police. In a recent mailer, Pawlenty is pictured standing next to Lt. Bob Kroll, the controversial leader of the Minneapolis police union, which recently endorsed Pawlenty.
But with an eye on November, Pawlenty told the Star Tribune his top three issues are health care, education and cutting taxes on middle-income Minnesotans.
If patients have more information and control over health care decisions, Pawlenty said, that will help bring down prices in a freer, market-oriented system, in contrast to DFL calls for a single-payer system like Medicare.
“We’re always going to have some elements of it being a regulated industry. But for those things that are predictable and scheduled, like a knee replacement, you can bring more market forces to bear,” he said.
Pawlenty compared the Byzantine pricing system in health care to buying a gallon of milk: “I bring the gallon of milk home, I don’t get a bill in the mail a month later for the gallon of milk, and then learn what the price was for it. And I don’t get a separate bill from the farmer who milked the cow.”
As with health care, another Pawlenty term would mean another attempt to wrestle with the state’s stubborn gap in educational outcomes between students of color and whites.
“The debate can’t just be how much money we’re pumping into the system,” Pawlenty said. “Are we using the increase in funding to incentivize schools to try to modernize and improve and be more accountable?” He said he would roll out an agenda on developing, training and supervising teachers, and — as needed — firing bad ones.
Pawlenty’s tax-cutting agenda is still forming. An early plan would aim at Social Security recipients — some of the most reliable voters — and cut taxes on their benefits.
At the parade in Lakeville, Pawlenty had plenty of well wishers along the route. He recognized many of them, running over for a quick chat before darting off to the next one. Laura Mears recognized Pawlenty and said she will happily vote for him and the prospect of lower taxes.
Much has changed in politics, Pawlenty said, since he left it behind in 2011 after his presidential run. He pointed to the powerful voice of social media and a more polarized electorate. But he said some things remain the same: “If you walk in a parade, that campaigning hasn’t changed.”