An unfolding recount of votes in the governor's election could give Gov. Tim Pawlenty a rare political gift: The chance, for the first time, to make pivotal decisions backed by a new, GOP-controlled Legislature.
By early next year, those could include whether to allow a federal expansion of Medicaid in Minnesota, and an opportunity to shape the next state budget. That would keep him in the public spotlight as he considers a possible run for president.
Pawlenty said Thursday, "I earnestly, genuinely, sincerely hope this is resolved by January 3rd" -- when his term officially ends. If issues arise, he said, he would do his duty, but "I won't go out looking for them."
Meanwhile, DFLer Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer remain on standby, putting together recount teams. At 5 p.m., Dayton led Emmer by 8,781 votes.
There was little movement in vote totals on Thursday, with state officials determining that only 3,000 absentee ballots were rejected in the election. So-called improperly rejected absentee ballots were key in the 2008 U.S. Senate recount between Democrat Al Franken, who ultimately won, and Republican Norm Coleman.
"If all of those are, in fact, Emmer votes, that still doesn't turn the tide," said Fritz Knaak, a GOP attorney who worked for Coleman during the 2008 recount.
The Dayton advantage, though narrow enough to trigger a recount, may be tough to overturn, election experts say. An eight-month-long recount and trial in 2008 resulted in a swing of about 500 votes.
"This is going to be a much steeper hill to climb," Knaak said. Franken's recount attorney, Marc Elias, agreed. Neither is involved in the preparations for the 2010 recount.
Ned Foley, an election law professor at Ohio State University, said his study of recounts found they rarely change the result and then only when the election night loser is fewer than 2,000 votes short of victory.
Franken spokeswoman Jess McIntosh put Dayton's advantage bluntly: "You can swim laps in 9,000 votes."
Recount plans take shape
Republicans on Thursday appeared fully prepared to take a dip in the pool.
An e-mail to their supporters put it plainly: "We need your help." Another e-mail said: "If your vote was not counted, and you did not vote in person on Election Day, please e-mail the recount team ... If you are a Republican activist and voted absentee, we want to ensure that your ballot was counted."
The Republican Party has hired Washington attorney Michael Toner to lead its recount efforts. Minnesota attorneys Tony Trimble and Matt Haapoja, who worked for Coleman, will also take part. On Thursday they sent letters to local election officials to begin the arduous process of collecting election night tallies.
The shape of Dayton's recount team also involves old Minnesota hands. Attorney Charlie Nauen, who worked on the 2008 recount for Franken, will head the legal team, joined by attorney David Lillehaug, a major player in that recount. Ken Martin will manage the effort. Martin was executive director of Win Minnesota and the 2010 Fund, which funneled millions of dollars into the Dayton-supporting Alliance for a Better Minnesota. Denise Cardinal, who was executive director of the Alliance, will handle media for the Dayton side of the recount.
Pawlenty plans to meet with Emmer and Dayton next week to help them prepare for their possible transitions. He said his staff will be available to help both understand the budget.
If the stalemate continues past Jan. 3, Pawlenty would continue as chief executive as the legislative session gets underway. GOP legislators could act quickly to send a budget-cutting bill to him to sign rather than waiting for a likely veto should Dayton prevail.
A long recount also could affect Minnesota's eligibility for an early infusion of new federal Medicaid money to expand coverage for the poor. The governor has until Jan. 15 to accept the early Medicaid expansion and receive $1.4 billion from the federal government. Pawlenty and Emmer oppose it, saying it would cost the state $430 million in matching funds while not guaranteeing continued federal funding.
Neither Dayton nor Emmer will be offered the small transition cash or Capitol office space until the election is settled, Pawlenty said.
As both camps gear up for a likely recount, they can look forward to raising unlimited cash to pay legal costs without needing to identify individual donors. The state Campaign Finance Board said state law does not require disclosure of donors to special recount funds and does not limit how much they can give.
The lack of restrictions and transparency stem from a distinction between campaign financing -- which must be reported under state law -- and post-campaign spending of a special recount fund, not covered under the law. The opinion also said that state parties could help the candidates pay for the costs of the recount.
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164 Staff writers Pat Doyle and Bob von Sternberg contributed to this report.