Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty took to Twitter recently to let everyone know that there’s no political comeback in the works: “Appreciate encouragement from friends, but I am politically retired. No change in status.”
So that ends the speculation about Pawlenty running again. Right?
Like a singer trying so very hard to persuade an adoring crowd that there are no more encores, the former governor’s efforts to hush all the talk about a return to politics seem a little less than completely sincere to both fans and foes. While perhaps genuinely undecided, Pawlenty has had private discussions about the prospect with donors and political supporters.
Meanwhile, talk of another run by the two-term Republican has preoccupied the state’s political insiders for months.
“What he would bring to the race is a clear vision for Minnesota’s future and what we need to do to maintain this great quality of life here,” said Charlie Weaver, a former Pawlenty chief of staff who’s now CEO of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which represents the state’s largest companies. “He would be uniquely positioned to do that, and he’s uniquely articulate in describing that vision to potential voters.”
Last week, Pawlenty showed up at a St. Paul luncheon to speak to the local chamber of commerce about technology and the opportunities and challenges it presents to business and government, another in a series of similar talks he’s given around the state in recent months. The speaking tour struck some as curious given Pawlenty’s day job lobbying on behalf of major banks, credit cards and insurance companies as CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable in Washington, D.C.
Pawlenty, 56, was the last Republican to win statewide office in Minnesota, in 2006. At the St. Paul event, he repeated to reporters his line that he’s retired from politics. But for readers of political tea leaves, his refusal to definitively say he wouldn’t run was meaningful.
A few forces are colliding that have Republicans stirring and DFLers trepidatious about a possible Pawlenty comeback: With two-term DFL Gov. Mark Dayton retiring, the 2018 race for governor is shaping up to be hugely consequential. If a Republican wins, the GOP would likely control both the Legislature and the governor’s office for the first time in nearly half a century.
And, the Republican field is — for now — lacking star power. So far, the leading candidates are Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who was the party’s nominee in 2014 and lost; state Sen. David Osmek; state Rep. Matt Dean; and former GOP party chairman Keith Downey. None enjoys the strong statewide name recognition and national fundraising connections that Pawlenty can take for granted.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt remains publicly undecided about running. A handful of big-name business leaders have resisted recruitment efforts, leaving many in the party nervous as they watch the calendar without a marquee name in the race.
Pawlenty declined to be interviewed for this story. Brian McClung, his former deputy chief of staff and longtime spokesman, brushed aside the chatter: “Governor Pawlenty has repeatedly made it clear that he is politically retired. There’s really not much worth talking about here.”
That’s unlikely to dampen such talk. Even as McClung dismissed the ongoing buzz, he promptly provided a list of Pawlenty’s accomplishments during his time in office, from 2003 to 2011. During his first term, Minnesota moved out of the top 10 highest taxed states in the nation. It also ranked among the lowest in rate of government spending growth during his tenure.
Pawlenty also toughened educational standards and signed some health care reforms. Along with his wife, Mary Pawlenty, a former judge, he created the “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon” program to support military and their families during and after deployments. Against resistance from the tobacco industry and some in his own party, Pawlenty signed the statewide smoking ban in restaurants and bars.
Matt Kramer, who was Pawlenty’s longest serving chief of staff and is now a vice president at the University of Minnesota, cited the recovery from the Interstate 35W bridge collapse under Pawlenty’s watch.
“It was a moment when you measure people,” Kramer said. “He worked with a federal coalition and state agencies to honor the victims, remove the old bridge and build a new bridge in 11 months. For any state government, that’s a remarkable accomplishment.”
While Pawlenty would bring assets none of his competitors could boast, there would also be downsides in trying to recapture past glory.
“He brings a lot of baggage to the table, including a $6 billion deficit,” said Ken Martin, the chairman of the DFL, referring to Minnesota’s budget woes when Pawlenty left office after not seeking re-election in 2010. “Since he left office he has been lobbying for the banking community. That is not going to sit well with Minnesotans.”
Pawlenty left office with mixed poll numbers, as he turned his attention to a presidential campaign that failed to launch. A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll in September 2009 found him with a 49 percent approval rating, and 55 percent opposed to him running for president. The state budget was reeling from the Great Recession.
Since his presidential run and retirement from public life, politics has changed. Pawlenty’s aw-shucks, smiling civility has been shoved aside as politics lurches toward an angrier, more taunting style.
And, while President Donald Trump and his coalition of anti-free trade, anti-immigration populists were taking over the Republican Party, Pawlenty was moving in the opposite direction: this son of a blue-collar South St. Paul family and longtime resident of an Eagan subdivision took over as chief lobbyist for the nation’s largest banks. The Financial Services Roundtable paid him $2.6 million in 2015, according to IRS documents.
Pawlenty dropped his support for Trump after a tape surfaced last year in which the then-reality TV star admitted to groping women without their consent. Pawlenty would have to make peace with Trump’s ardent supporters, who might try to derail his candidacy. He could skip the state GOP convention, where die-hard activists would wield the most influence, and head straight to a primary. Biding his time allows Pawlenty to stay above the fray, avoiding attacks from both DFLers and fellow Republicans.
“It’s a challenge for the party,” said Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman and now a Washington lobbyist, who said he and Pawlenty discussed the governor’s race at a recent lunch. “How do we meld the populist Trump base with the voters we need from the center and form the majority that I think is there?”
Pawlenty may be trying to burnish his GOP populist cred. In his very next tweet after he declared he is still retired, Pawlenty weighed in on upcoming Minneapolis elections, commenting on City Council and mayoral candidates who envisioned a city without police: “Nutty doesn’t begin to describe this. Yikes,” he tweeted.
Then there’s his hair, which was well over his collar at the recent St. Paul talk.
“He’s got great hockey hair right now,” Kramer observed. “In Minnesota, that goes a long way.”