Minnesota Republicans will nominate one of two veteran officeholders and seasoned political competitors for governor Aug. 14, hoping to reclaim the chief executive post after eight years of negotiating and dueling with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
Based on following the decadeslong careers of both GOP contenders, as well as on recent interviews and reporting, the Star Tribune Editorial Board is confident that former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, 57, best meets the standard that seems most suitable when primary contestants largely agree on issues and both possess solid qualifications. That is, we believe Pawlenty would be the more effective advocate for his party’s agenda, affording Minnesota the kind of vigorous campaign that will lend legitimacy to the fall election’s outcome — whoever the state’s new governor turns out to be.
Pawlenty’s rival, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, 51, is a good man and a dedicated public servant. A longtime guardian of taxpayer dollars and a sometimes lonely crusader for limited government, Johnson ably combines clarity and conviction with civility. During his first gubernatorial bid in 2014, the Editorial Board dubbed Johnson “gubernatorial material” even while endorsing his opponent. He continues to measure up to that label.
To be sure, Johnson won his second GOP party endorsement this year with a somewhat edgier campaign message, perhaps befitting the charged political times. He has styled himself a disrupter who would curb spending, cut taxes, lighten regulation and in general “overthrow the status quo” of an “arrogant” government that is “out of control.” He has focused much attention on public anxieties about immigration, promising to end refugee resettlement in Minnesota.
Whatever one makes of those priorities, it is hard to see clear evidence that as a nominee Johnson would advance them, or other conservative ideas, more successfully than Pawlenty.
Each man has appeared twice on statewide ballots — Pawlenty in 2002 and 2006, Johnson in 2014 and in a 2006 bid for attorney general. Pawlenty won twice; Johnson lost twice.
Johnson insists his message can be all about the future, while a Pawlenty campaign will have to be largely about “the past” — about rehashing the many controversies of Pawlenty’s two gubernatorial terms. But this cuts both ways. Each of these candidates has been prominent in state politics for decades. It says something that only one of them has produced a “past” significant enough to dominate debate.
To have impact is to suffer bruises, and Pawlenty has suffered his share. Some blunders and pratfalls, too. But Minnesotans know him, and he knows the machinery of state government. Republicans eager for victory should note he’s proven not only that he can do the job, but also that he can win the job.
Pawlenty’s eventful governorship (not entirely unlike his successor’s) was dominated by budget battles with a differently minded Legislature. There were shutdowns and special sessions and constitutional challenges in court. Critics emphasize that Pawlenty left behind a budget deep in deficit, despite a surplus of financial gimmicks and stingy appropriations. Admirers note that despite uncooperative Legislatures and a historic national economic downturn, Pawlenty held a firmer line on taxes and spending than did any other governor in modern state history.
Here and there, Pawlenty also supported more centrist policies, or at least stayed out of their way, including several rail transit projects. (Today he remains a “skeptic” on rail transit, but he doubts the Southwest light-rail project can be reversed.) Pawlenty’s years also brought clean-energy programs, a smoking ban, a minimum-wage increase, the Twins ballpark and more.
Such lapses into flexibility (along with his stint as a financial lobbyist in recent years) seem to have earned Pawlenty scorn among the most ardent conservatives. But we suspect the flexibility (if not the lobbying gig) plays better with the Minnesota mainstream.
(Disclosure: Star Tribune owner Glen Taylor has donated funds to the Pawlenty campaign.)
Pawlenty on the 2018 campaign trail displays a familiar, infectious fascination with ideas. He proposes bold education reforms targeted at the very lowest-performing schools and least-skilled teachers, efforts to slow health care consolidation, and a plan to give private gun sellers a positive incentive, rather than a mandate, to conduct background checks.
He emphasizes, with assurance born of experience, the importance in government of mastering the “art of the possible” — focusing on policy ideas that can actually become law given the political realities of a particular moment.
One political reality just now, in our judgment, is that Pawlenty affords Republican primary voters the greatest possibility of advancing their party’s cause.