Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced he is running for governor Thursday, attempting a restoration after eight years out of office that saw his DFL successor move the state in a more progressive direction at odds with Pawlenty's tenure.
Pawlenty, a longtime Eagan resident, served two four-year terms beginning in 2003. The South St. Paul native built an image of a hockey-playing "Sam's Club Republican" who could win suburban, middle-class voters in a Democratic-leaning state.
"My campaign for governor will focus on charting a better way forward for Minnesota families who see health care premiums skyrocketing, paychecks not increasing very fast, college costs and student debt rising — all while government spending and taxes climb through the roof," Pawlenty said in a two-minute video released Thursday.
A comeback won't be easy. Pawlenty's long public record and most recent job as a bank lobbyist will give his opponents ammunition. And he must win over a Republican Party now led by President Donald Trump, who is fervently supported by the GOP base but was trashed by Pawlenty before the 2016 election as "unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit" for office.
Still, Pawlenty's entry shakes up the open governor's race, scrambling a GOP field thus far marked by a lack of enthusiasm among activists and financial donors. Gov. Mark Dayton is not running after his two terms, and the DFL field to replace him is unsettled.
"Gov. Pawlenty can deliver a winning message that resonates across Minnesota," said Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River. "He is the GOP candidate that can raise the money and build a statewide campaign infrastructure to compete and win in November."
Pawlenty, 57, has not yet said if he will run for the GOP endorsement at the party's convention in early June. He was scheduled to make his first public appearance as a candidate Friday morning at an Eagan diner.
Pawlenty has not been on a Minnesota ballot since 2006; his last political campaign was his bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, but he withdrew in 2011 after finishing behind Michele Bachmann in an Iowa straw poll. Since then, he served as CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable in Washington, a lucrative lobbying job that he left last month.
Until now, the GOP front-runner in the governor's race has been Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who lost the governor's race to Dayton in 2014. Johnson easily won a caucus straw poll in February, but has struggled to raise money.
"Tim Pawlenty has never gotten over 46 percent of the vote in a statewide election, even after four years of being governor, and that was before a controversial second term, before he made $10 million as a Washington, D.C., lobbyist, and he publicly trashed Donald Trump a month before Election Day," Johnson said this week. "He's the last person Republicans should want at the top of the ticket in 2018."
Pawlenty promises the ability to raise substantial money quickly from an enthusiastic business class, giving Republicans hope that their last candidate to win statewide can give them back the governor's office in what is viewed as one of the most consequential elections in years. A Republican victory in November could mean full GOP control of state government for the first time in half a century.
Both political parties want to control government following the 2020 census, after which the Legislature and governor will negotiate the new legislative and congressional district lines that will drive Minnesota politics for the following decade.
The two parties will attempt to endorse a candidate for governor at conventions the first weekend of June, but officially pick their candidates in the August 14 primary election.
Pawlenty has used the past 18 months to sharpen a message for a potential return to politics, speaking to chambers of commerce and other groups across the state about the opportunities and challenges of artificial intelligence and other technological innovations that promise to revolutionize all aspects of life, but especially work.
Despite Pawlenty's emphasis on the future, his candidacy will inevitably focus on the eight years he already spent as governor. The DFL candidate will likely challenge Pawlenty's record in office, during which Minnesota suffered through two recessions, stagnant job growth, perpetual budget woes and a bridge collapse.
"As governor, he deprived thousands of Minnesotans of affordable health care. He jeopardized our children's education. He devastated our budget, and left roads and bridges across the state to crumble," said DFL Chairman Ken Martin.
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, one of the leading DFL contenders for governor, greeted Pawlenty's entry into the race by tweeting: "You were a bad governor. Your decisions on health care, education and infrastructure hurt Minnesotans.''
When Pawlenty left office with a budget deficit of more than $6 billion, the Legislature resorted to taking money from school districts to balance the books using an accounting maneuver.
Pawlenty backers cite his record during those difficult times as an asset, saying he avoided raising taxes and showed the ability to make tough decisions.
During his first term, Minnesota moved out of the top 10 highest-taxed states in the nation. It also ranked among the lowest in rate of government spending growth during his tenure. That rate of spending growth has accelerated under Dayton.
The year of Pawlenty's first election in 2002, the Minnesota unemployment rate was 4.4 percent. At the end of 2010, as he prepared to leave office, it had risen to 7 percent. That was well below the national average at the time of 9.4 percent, but more than double what it is today after two terms of a DFL governor.
Pawlenty toughened some educational standards and signed some major changes to health care law. Along with his wife, Mary Pawlenty, a former judge, he created the "Beyond the Yellow Ribbon" program to support military members and their families during and after deployments. Against resistance from the tobacco industry and some in his own party, Pawlenty signed the statewide smoking ban in restaurants and bars. He also championed a 75-cent state charge on a pack of cigarettes, dubbing it a "health impact fee" instead of a tax increase.
Campaigning for the office he once held means Pawlenty will inevitably clash with his successor. In his video launch, Pawlenty takes some swipes at Dayton, if only implicitly: "When I was governor, we were number one in ACT scores and in the top three states for teaching math and science, but we've slipped," he says.
On health care, he accuses the Dayton administration of wasting money on programs whose recipients are not eligible to receive them: "Minnesota wastes hundreds of millions each year on health care for people who aren't even eligible. Give me a break," he says.
For his part, Dayton's consistent message as governor has been a return to robust education spending and fiscal integrity after years of deficits papered over by Pawlenty's accounting gimmickry.