Republicans Tim Pawlenty and Jeff Johnson attacked each other in a debate Friday — in at times sharply personal tones — as they vie for conservative support ahead of the Aug. 14 primary.
The two clashed over an attack advertisement Pawlenty is running that claims Johnson betrayed conservative values. They argued over Pawlenty's eight-year term as governor and Johnson's career in the Legislature and on the Hennepin County Commission. And they jabbed about which one is the true ally or foe of President Donald Trump.
"Jeff Johnson is a poser. He pretends that he's for all these things and that he's going to get all these things done, but he's been in politics most of his adult life and he's done none of them," Pawlenty said near the start of the debate, which aired on Minnesota Public Radio.
"Tim, I won't call you any names," Johnson responded. "But there's no interest among the grass roots," he said of Pawlenty. "And it's because there's disappointment in your governorship."
Pawlenty's aggressive tone indicated his campaign is not taking lightly the challenge from Johnson, who won the endorsement during the state GOP convention in June. Despite his advantages in fundraising and familiarity with voters, Pawlenty has a long record to defend in a changed political environment, with Trump's populist appeal prevalent in the party.
The winner of the GOP primary will face one of three DFL candidates for governor: State Rep. Erin Murphy, Attorney General Lori Swanson or U.S. Rep. Tim Walz.
The two Republicans did not offer sharply contrasting views of the current state of Minnesota government and where it should be headed. After eight years of a DFL governor, they both say they want lower taxes, but they both agree that the state must spend more on mental health facilities, professionals and treatment. They both say that there's waste in government that can be cut. And both want to restrict refugee resettlement and illegal immigration.
Johnson managed to draw contrasts, however, when he cited Pawlenty's record in office and harsh comments about Trump in 2016.
Pawlenty campaigned as a conservative, but governed as a moderate, Johnson alleged. "You had a chance, you had your opportunity, this privilege for eight years to just fundamentally reform government in a conservative way," he said.
Pawlenty interrupted: "Which [of] those did you do, Jeff, in your entire career? What did you actually accomplish in your career in the Legislature or the Hennepin County Commission?"
Johnson shot back: "Hey, Tim, I've never been governor."
They then sparred over which candidate had been tougher on the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning agency much loathed by suburban Republicans.
Earlier, Pawlenty offered a full-throated defense of his record on conservative terms: "If you look at my record as governor of the state of Minnesota, it's a common-sense conservative record, and anyone who looks at that fairly will reach that conclusion," he said, citing the appointment of conservative judges, reduced growth in state spending, lower taxes, and work requirements for welfare.
"By the way, deployed in a liberal, blue-state Minnesota, it's a remarkably good record," said Pawlenty, who served from 2003 to 2011 before an unsuccessful run for the presidency.
After agreeing on such issues as taxes and government spending, the two again confronted one another over their support — or lack thereof — for Trump.
"I agree with many of his policy positions. Sometimes I don't always agree with his style and language. I said some negative things about him. So did Jeff. So we're both sort of in the same boat in that regard," Pawlenty said.
Johnson said Pawlenty was misleading the audience. "Tim said a few weeks before the election [that Trump's] unhinged and unfit to be president and I'm withdrawing my support. There's a big difference there."
Pawlenty replied, "Well, to be blunt about it, Jeff called him a 'jackass.' "
Johnson said his statement was in the context of supporting Trump despite his peccadilloes, whereas Pawlenty withdrew his support.
Pawlenty fired back: "In Jeff's explanation, President Donald Trump was a jackass before he became Jeff's hero."
Johnson interrupted, sounding exasperated: "No, that's not true at all, Tim. Did you listen to what I just said?"
Johnson then asked, "You said he was unfit to be president. On Election Night, who did you want to win?"
Pawlenty said he voted for Trump in the early voting period, before the "Access Hollywood" tape in which Trump bragged about grabbing women's genitals. Still, on Election Night, he said, "I absolutely wanted President Donald Trump to beat Hillary Clinton."
Johnson replied once more: "Even though you said he was unfit to be president and you weren't supporting him."
The two will debate on KSTP-TV on Sunday at 10 a.m. and again with the DFL candidates at Farmfest on Wednesday.