Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty talked up Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's chances in the emerging Republican presidential race, saying his fellow Midwesterner is best situated to challenge former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Jeb clearly is the establishment candidate, and he's raised a boatload of money," Pawlenty said Friday at the University of Minnesota. But in a national GOP fragmented between what's left of the establishment, neoconservatives, libertarians, tea partiers, social conservatives and others, Pawlenty said Walker is best situated to straddle that factionalization.
"Scott is from a Midwestern state, but he's got a national profile and national fundraising capabilities," Pawlenty said, norting Walker's successful efforts to weaken labor union power in Wisconsin.
Drawing parallels between their experiences, Palenty said Walker's success in a Democratic-leaning state has taught him how to speak to moderate voters.
"If you're governing in MInnesota or Wisconsin, there's a common sense craft in how you make common sense arguments using conservative principles," Pawlenty said. "Scott's conservative, but he doesn't scare the establishment."
Now working as CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable, a Washington-based lobbying group for banks, Pawlenty said he's not ready to endorse a GOP candidate but did not rule out doing so. He did have scathing comments for one prominent Republican, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
In 2008, Pawlenty and Palin were both finalists to be running mate to Sen. John McCain; Palin won out. At the time, Pawlenty said, he didn't know what to make of her. He later made up his mind.
"One of the criteria is, you have to be able to do the job" of president, Pawlenty said. "You have to be qualified and prepared. I don't think that Gov. Palin would be viewed by the country or should be viewed by the country as a wise selection to be president."
Pawlenty's appearance at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs was mostly a Q-and-A session with former state House Speaker Steve Sviggum, who now teaches there. Sviggum and Pawlenty were close allies in the late '90s and early '00s, when Sviggum led the House and Pawlenty was his deputy.
Elected governor in 2002, Pawlenty narrowly won a second term in 2006 -- still the last time a Republican has won a statewide race in Minnesota. Pawlenty said he thinks Minnesota has shifted a little to the left since then, and he said the state Republican Party must "market itself better" to new groups of voters.
Pawlenty talked little about his failed 2012 bid for president, where he flamed out early in a crowded field of Republican contenders. "Just about everything we did" was a mistake, he said, particularly the decision to spend limited campaign resources on winning a straw poll of Iowa caucus voters.
While repeatedly describing himself as "politically retired," Pawlenty weighed in on a number of state and national issues. He spoke most about education policy, a favorite issue during his time as governor.
The closest Pawlenty came to commenting on a current issue before the Legislature was to voice support for changing Minnesota's seniority-based system for hiring and firing teachers. A bill to scrap that system recently passed the state House, but faces a skeptical audience with Pawlenty's DFL successor, Gov. Mark Dayton.
Still, Pawlenty declined to criticize Dayton.
"I try not to comment on the current governor because it always annoyed me when former governors weighed in," Pawlenty said. "It's like, shut the hell up."
Like a good politician, Pawlenty refused to completely rule out a future run for office, but tried to discourage speculation that he might. Dayton is not running again in 2018, leaving an opening in Pawlenty's old job, and both of Minnesota's U.S. Senate seats are currently held by Democrats.
"I had a full run at it," Pawlenty said. But noting he's still a relatively young 54, he added: "I don't ultimately know what the future holds."
Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey is the star of a new statewide TV ad, funded by the party, that demands Gov. Mark Dayton and lawmakers return the entire $1.9 billion budget surplus to taxpayers.
"What would you do with an extra $350?" Downey says in the ad that debuted Tuesday. That's the amount each Minnesotan would get if the surplus were to be divided equally, Downey said.
But that message doesn't square with numerous spending proposals from leading Republican lawmakers in the House majority, who have talked about using part of the surplus to pay for road and bridge repair, to increase state spending on long-term care for senior citizens, to boost aid to schools and local governments and other proposals.
"I don't think anybody's talking about giving it back in the sense of giving people checks," said Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, the House budget chief. He said Republicans would propose significant tax relief, but that it would be more targeted.
The House GOP also still intends to spend at least $200 million from the surplus on roads and bridges, Knoblach said; he said other spending proposals also remain under consideration by GOP leadership.
In addition to pressuring GOP House members who might not want to return the entire surplus, the party's spending on the campaign -- which Downey described as being in the six figures -- comes even amid new signs that its longterm debt problems are not yet resolved. Last week, several national Republican media firms publicly aired anger towards Downey over nearly $300,000 in unpaid bills owed them by the party for work prior to last November's election.
"I'm puzzled that they're spending on that rather than focusing on getting us out of the red," said Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, a former vice chairwoman of the party. At the end of January, the party still had $1.47 million in total unpaid debts.
The full ad can be seen here.
(This post has been updated.)
A Republican-allied national political consulting firm is demanding the Minnesota Republican Party pay back more than $200,000 in overdue bills related to last year's election.
"We did work on behalf of the party," Peter Valcarce, founder and chairman of Salt Lake City-based Arena Communications, wrote in an email to state GOP Chairman Keith Downey. "That work was performed based upon the good faith belief that monies which had been deposited and budgeted for party mail in support of Mike McFadden and Stewart Mills would be promptly paid to us."
Valcarce, who sent the email last Monday, confirmed its legitimacy in a phone call. Valcarce said Monday that Downey responded by promising to deliver a repayment plan by the end of the day this Monday.
In an interview, Downey said the state GOP has paid up "about 80 percent of the vendor invoices" related to the 2014 campaign. "We're confident everyone is going to be paid everything they're owed," he said.
In all, Downey said, the party has covered 90 percent of campaign 2014 costs. Of those vendors waiting to be paid, he said, about 20 percent of the total payment has yet to be made.
A major focus of Downey's chairmanship of the state party has been to restore financial stability to a party that teetered near bankruptcy in recent years. He is running for a second two-year term as state party chairman at a party gathering on April 11.
"We're on a sound financial footing," Downey said.
Valcarce's email to Downey carries an angry tone at times. "Claims that 'financial obligations have been met' and the like speak volumes." He later wrote: "We will continue to explore all options regarding recovering the monies owed to us."
In the phone interview, Valcarce called the situation unusual.
"It's the first time I've taken a step like this with a state party in the almost 20 years I've been in business," he said.
Downey downplayed the significance of the overdue bills, and the harsh tone by fellow Republican political operatives. "Vendor communications are typically in private rather than public," he said.
Minnesota's precinct caucuses have been scheduled for March 1, 2016, a move that will bolster the state's relevance in the presidential nominating process, one party chair said.
In a letter to Secretary of State Steve Simon, DFL Party Chair Ken Martin and Republican Party Chair Keith Downey agreed to the date. In a statement, Downey said the March 1 date puts both in line with the nominating calendars of their national parties.
"This new date respects the traditional early-primary states' status, and positions Minnesota's caucuses to be part of a potential newly emerging March 1st group of states," Downey said. "We hope it will increase Minnesota's stature in the Presidential nominating process for both our parties next year, which all-around is good for Minnesota voters."
Minnesota's precinct caucuses generally take place in February. Read the letter here:
Groups spent at least $15 million last year trying to influence Minnesota state elections through so-called “independent expenditures,” which is in addition to money spent by individual candidates, according to the latest filing from the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.
DFL-aligned groups outspent their Republican counterparts considerably, by $10 million to $6 million.
In addition to nearly $2.9 million by the state party and more than $900,000 by the DFL House caucus, Democrats were helped by familiar names: The Alliance for a Better Minnesota Action Fund spent more than $4.5 million. Big labor unions PACs also pitched in, including Education Minnesota with more than $400,000 and big totals from AFSCME, SEIU and the nurses union.
On the Republican side, the party pitched in with $1.3 million. Minnesota Action Network, with which former Sen. Norm Coleman is affiliated, spent $657,000; Pro Jobs Majority spent more than $1 million, with several similar, business-backed groups chipping in six figure chunks. The House Republican caucus spent $440,000.
What’s not known, however, is how much was spent by so-called “dark money” groups, nonprofit groups that can spend unlimited, concealed sums on elections and have sprouted up since the U.S. Supreme Court began deregulating campaign spending via the Citizens United decision. Republicans are believed to be the bigger beneficiary of this spending.
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