Don’t be surprised if you wake up one early August morning to a blast of tweets from President Donald Trump ripping Tim Pawlenty.
Trump’s remaking of the Republican Party may be Pawlenty’s biggest hurdle if he decides to run for governor again after a nearly decadelong break, during which he’s pursued an inglorious bid for president in 2012 and a lucrative job lobbying for banks in Washington, D.C. (earning $2.7 million in 2016).
Reality check: Pawlenty won’t get the chance to face off against the Democratic nominee in the fall if he can’t win the GOP nomination.
“Wait a second, Professor,” you say. “Aren’t you leaving out Pawlenty’s strengths?”
Good point — one that is hammered home by Pawlenty’s legion of supporters. If he ran — and he hasn’t made that decision — the former governor would enjoy nearly universal name recognition, a gold-plated Rolodex of donors, extraordinary communications skills and continuing popularity among Republicans who turn out for primaries.
Prominent officials in both the DFL and the GOP, and grass-roots activists of both conservative and progressive hue agree: Pawlenty would be a “more formidable” Republican standard-bearer than Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who lost to Gov. Mark Dayton in 2014 and is the GOP’s current gubernatorial front-runner.
All of Pawlenty’s assets, though, don’t eliminate the problem: Today’s Minnesota Republican Party has been transformed by the Tea Party outpouring in 2010 and by the surge of Trump supporters in 2016 who came within 1.5 percentage points of beating Democrat Hillary Clinton in the state.
In Hollywood’s classic “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy wakes up after being knocked out during a tornado and marvels to her dog, Toto: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Welcome back to Minnesota, Mr. Pawlenty.
Far from adapting to this strange new world, Pawlenty is harshly criticized by the GOP leaders and conservative activists I talked to for being “tone-deaf” and for “failing to see what is going on in Minnesota.” Part of the problem, in their view, is that “he’s getting advice from the wrong people” and has “insulated himself with the like-minded and the donors.”
Here are the two hurdles that may trip up Pawlenty if he runs — even if he wins the nomination battle.
No. 1: Trump
For Pawlenty to win his party’s nomination, he needs the backing of Republicans who overwhelmingly approve of the president’s performance in the White House. That’s a big problem for a Republican like Pawlenty, who declared candidate Trump “uninformed, unhinged and unfit” to be president after the release of the “Access Hollywood” video shortly before the 2016 election.
The delegates in the endorsing process “remember Pawlenty’s betrayal and will be reminded of it often,” according to supporters of Trump and Jeff Johnson. A leader of conservative party activists insists that a “secret society” of nearly 10,000 people who connect through Facebook and Twitter are mostly committed to the proposition: “No Pawlenty.”
Then there is the president himself, who told several party leaders that he will visit Minnesota “more than once” this year. Supporters of Trump and Johnson report that the president’s advisers have made it clear that he “hasn’t forgotten” Pawlenty’s betrayal nor decided whether to exact retribution. Stay tuned.
What would it take for Pawlenty to get a Mitt Romney pass from Trump and Minnesota conservatives? (Romney harshly criticized candidate Trump in 2016 but recently won the president’s endorsement to run for an open U.S. Senate seat in Utah.)
Answer: “Eat crow.” Pawlenty’s path to redemption has two parts, according to party activists and a Republican legislative leader who worked well with Gov. Pawlenty when he was in office.
First, he must convince skeptical conservatives that this time he will make “fundamental change in the direction of government” after failing, in their eyes, to do so during two terms in office.
Then Pawlenty must take the Trumpist plunge by backing a “pause on immigration” and closing down what Trump supporters described to me as the “terrorist hotbed” in Minneapolis and the risk of “immigrants setting up sharia” and threatening “American traditions of the rule of law.”
Would Pawlenty, who entered politics as a moderate problem-solver, embrace Trumpism?
No. 2: The endorsement dilemma
“Deer-in-the-headlights” is how I’d describe the reaction of Pawlenty loyalists when I asked whether he would seek the party endorsement. (Before the primary election in August in which voters determine each party’s final nominees, convention delegates decide whether to “endorse” a candidate.) At first, I thought they were being cagey — that they’d settled on a plan and were keeping me in the dark. But now I realize that they are hesitating because they face a no-win choice among two politically unattractive options.
• Lousy option one: Pursue the endorsement with an “earnest” campaign to persuade party activists, which one GOP leader insisted is Pawlenty’s “only road” forward. But the Pawlenty team sees a problem: The endorsing process is chock-full of the hardest-core converts. And GOP insiders concede that Pawlenty faces a steep uphill climb to winning endorsement. Pointing to the former governor’s connections to big-buck donors and his recent work as a banking lobbyist, a well-connected Republican confirmed that the conservative base is “most excited with draining the swamp and most resistant to the ultimate swamp creature and a return to the ‘party of the rich’ label.”
What’s more, the endorsing process is a race, and Johnson has gained an advantage as Pawlenty has sat on the sidelines. Johnson has been recruiting and lobbying Republicans who will end up as delegates at the state convention in Duluth on June 1-2.
Bottom line for those on the Pawlenty team: They face the risk of embarrassment if they fail to win the endorsement, or even to block Johnson from being endorsed by securing more than 40 percent of the vote.
• Lousy option two: Skip the endorsing process and go straight into the primary battle, according to an experienced politico close to Pawlenty.
The problem here is that the response of party activists to being ignored “won’t be pretty,” according to a GOP leader at the State Capitol. Pawlenty may well reap “anger” and “repudiation” and unify party activists to “work hard against Pawlenty and for Jeff Johnson 100 percent.”
“Hold up, Professor, isn’t it a bit far-fetched to discount the enormous advantages enjoyed by a national figure like Tim Pawlenty?” Maybe. But remember Tommy Thompson.
Thompson entered the Wisconsin 2012 U.S. Senate race with Pawlenty-like confidence in his national and state standing. Thompson had served in the administration of President George W. Bush after setting a Wisconsin record as that state’s longest-serving governor. His reward: He faced the indignity of a bruising nomination battle — he prevailed with only 34 percent — then lost the general election to the less-well established Democrat Tammy Baldwin.
Pawlenty, too, is unlikely to enjoy a cakewalk to the GOP nomination, but he may prevail. What would his fall campaign look like?
Start with the silver lining. Fighting the unpopular Trump and his supporters for the GOP nomination might be the best thing that could happen to Pawlenty — if he used it to reconnect with his past as a broadly appealing moderate Republican inclined to “get things done.” Reclaiming his mantel as champion of “Sam’s Club” Republicans could also equip him to reverse the GOP’s increasingly single-minded focus on greater Minnesota — a shift that has contributed to wins in state legislative races but has hurt Republicans in the suburbs and in statewide races.
Pawlenty loyalists point to the costs of abandoning the former governor’s winning strategy. The GOP has enjoyed no statewide wins since Pawlenty’s 2006 re-election victory, and it lost the once-solid Republican suburbs, including Eagan, where Pawlenty got his start as a pragmatist. (The GOP won nearly half of the precincts in 2000, but none in 2016.)
When I tested out this optimistic scenario on a DFL leader, I was surprised at his reaction: agreement. Beating back Trump could position Pawlenty, this DFLer acknowledged, to win back moderates and suburbanites by stressing education and transportation, including the Southwest light-rail line that several of the metro chambers of commerce support and the current GOP leadership at the Capitol opposes.
Now for the storm clouds. A brutal battle for the nomination “helps the DFL candidate,” according to leaders in both parties. DFLers smile at the prospect of Trump supporters eviscerating Pawlenty as a “swamp creature.”
A wounded Pawlenty as a foe in the fall’s general election, a DFL leader gushed, is the perfect “foil for Mark Dayton.” The DFL’s research — already topping a thousand pages — identifies “lots of fodder” to draw sharp contrasts between Dayton’s accomplishments and Pawlenty’s “record that left Minnesota in budgetary and economic shambles.”
Pawlenty loyalists focus their message on the next several decades, not the past several. The former governor, according to someone close to him, will frame 2018 as a choice between “two different visions for the future.”
The election in November, according to this loyalist, will boil down to a choice about Minnesota’s path ahead, and Pawlenty will win that contest by exciting voters with his vision for an innovative and prosperous Minnesota in the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
After years of negativity and nastiness, maybe voters in November will welcome hopeful talk of a new age.
Lawrence R. Jacobs is the Walter F. and Joan Mondale chair for political studies and director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance in the Hubert H. Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota.