The governor is campaigning hard for down-ticket GOP candidates, seeking to head off a DFL that can override his vetoes.
With 12 days to go until the election, Gov. Tim Pawlenty is trying to influence the result that would affect him the most -- the possibility DFLers could gain five more seats in the Minnesota House and, with them, a veto-proof majority.
The governor has been criss-crossing the state for House Republicans in recent weeks, holding airport rallies in Thief River Falls and Bemidji and addressing a crowd at a Perkins restaurant in North Branch. On Wednesday, he was bowling in St. Paul, taking off his tie and rolling a purple bowling ball at a fundraiser for House GOP candidates.
"I need to be able to say to the DFL legislators that 'The legislation you've put forward is unreasonable, it's unbalanced,'" Pawlenty told the crowd at the bowling alley. "The only thing that will allow me to do that is to maintain the threat of a veto.
"Just think of all the ideas they've had over the years that have not been wise," said Pawlenty, who this year issued more vetoes than any Minnesota governor since at least before World War II. Should the DFL hold 90 seats in the House come January -- the party currently has a 45-22 veto-proof majority in the Senate -- the Republican governor said the DFL will put forward a "wide-open, runaway train of bad ideas."
The Senate isn't up for election this year, although two seats -- one most recently GOP and one DFL -- are on the Nov. 4 ballot to fill vacancies.
'He understands the gravity'
As the governor bowled with lobbyists and Republican legislators, both DFLers and Republicans said the governor's efforts were a sign of what is at stake. "He's way more active this time ... refreshingly, noticeably so," said Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, who bowled with the governor. Beard predicted the Republicans would block any DFL surge and add six more seats to the 49 they now have.
House Minority Leader Marty Seifert agreed that the governor is focused. "He understands the gravity," said Seifert, R-Marshall, who said he has helped Pawlenty determine which seats are winnable and worth a campaign visit. A veto-proof DFL majority "pushes everything [in the House] completely to the left. It pushes the governor to the side."
A study released this week by two political analysts at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs called the DFL's bid for a veto-proof majority the "biggest sleeper story" of the election season in the state. Such an outcome could make the governor -- who arguably remains the most popular Republican in Minnesota -- politically "irrelevant," the study said.
Larry Jacobs, the chief author, said a DFL override majority in the House could affect the governor's decision to seek a third term in 2010, affect almost every Minnesotan as the state's budget woes loom and even propel House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher to the top as the leading DFL candidate for governor in 2010. "This [House] election is the one that is really going to affect what goes on in Minnesota," said Jacobs.
Jacobs said the odds are still against the DFL picking up five more seats. DFLers won 12 seats two years ago in districts that were carried by both Pawlenty in 2006 and President Bush in 2004, which suggests they are at their core Republican-leaning areas. DFLers, he added, will also be defending 27 districts that the party won by less than 10 percentage points in 2006.
But he said a "perfect storm of open [Republican] seats, comparatively depressed Republican turnout, and conditions favorable to Democrats" could make such a milestone possible for DFLers.
Kelliher downplays things
Kelliher, who has been traveling the state for DFL candidates, downplayed the significance of a veto-proof majority and indicated it may be beyond reach. "We won in so many places [in 2006], we do have more seats to defend," said Kelliher, who declined to predict what might happen Nov. 4.
People ask "do I lay awake at night and think about 90 seats, and I don't," she added.
Kelliher also scoffed at Pawlenty becoming "irrelevant" should the DFL win five more seats, saying the governor has been "very resilient" during his six years in office.
"If there are more Democrats in the Legislature, more than the current 85, I think the governor will be more engaged," she said.
She also said the larger impact on Minnesotans of a DFL veto-proof majority was overblown. "I don't think it should be something people should be concerned about," she said.
One beneficiary of Pawlenty's efforts has been Steve Lillestol, an auto dealership owner in Thief River Falls who is trying to unseat Rep. Dave Olin, a first-term DFLer. Lillestol met Pawlenty at the local airport Oct. 13 -- a day when the governor visited Thief River Falls, Bemidji and Little Falls -- and escorted him to a nearby rally to boost Lillestol's candidacy.
"It's more frosting than anything else," Lillestol said of the governor's visit. He said the daily nuts-and-bolts work his campaign has done has more to do with winning than a visit by the governor does, but he said Pawlenty's visit potentially helps both of them.
"If the Democrats were to get an extra five [seats], it really diminishes his power, doesn't it?" said Lillestol.
The governor drew more than a hundred people to a Perkins restaurant Oct. 9 to help Don Taylor, the Chisago City mayor. Taylor is trying to defeat Rep. Jeremy Kalin, another first-term DFLer who won his seat by just 204 votes two years ago.
"The governor won by quite a few votes in this particular county. He seems to be pretty popular," said Taylor. "What [his visit] did for [my] race, I'm not sure."
Others can only wish for such attention. David Carlson, a first-time Republican legislative candidate in St. Paul, said he has tried unsuccessfully to get Pawlenty to campaign on his behalf. A former Marine who served in Iraq, Carlson said he actually met the governor when Pawlenty was in Iraq. Getting the governor's attention as Carlson tries to unseat Rep. Sheldon Johnson, a four-term DFLer, has been difficult, he said.
"The problem is, I'm a 'Tier 3' race," said Carlson, acknowledging that Republican leaders have viewed his challenge in the heavily DFL district as a long shot. "The governor's time [is important] -- they have their targets."
Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388