We’re getting the 2012 band back together. Romney’s come out of retirement to run for Senate, now T-Paw’s headed back (hopefully) to the governor’s mansion in Minnesota. All that’s left is for Newt to run for his old House seat in Georgia. We’re probably going to need a new Speaker/minority leader next year, after all.
Pawlenty spent eight years as governor then five years as the head of a powerful banking lobby. He’s well-liked by the party establishment, both for his electoral success and for having co-chaired Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012 after flaming out of the primaries. Between Beltway Republicans, Mitt’s network, Wall Street, and K Street, he’ll have all the money he could hope for. What makes him an interesting pol, though, both now and six years ago, is that he also has some downscale cred. He’s an evangelical and a man keenly aware that the GOP is as much a party of Sam’s Club as the country club, as he famously said during his first stint in charge in Minnesota. Those “Sam Club’s voters” were key to electing Trump four years later.
What Pawlenty is not, however, is a reactionary. That makes him a tough sell in a national GOP primary but not so tough in a general election for a purple state like Minnesota.
The former 2012 GOP presidential candidate brings years of political experience, name recognition and a potential donor war chest to a governor’s race that has only a few declared candidates, many of them from the state legislature.
Immediately after Pawlenty’s announcement, nonpartisan elections analysis website Sabato’s Crystal Ball changed the status of the Minnesota gubernatorial race from “leans Democratic” to “toss-up.”
“Pawlenty is a serious enough candidate to move the needle, at least for now,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor for the site, tweeted.
Obvious question: If Pawlenty’s such a strong candidate, why didn’t he run for Senate? Democrats are defending not one but two seats in Minnesota this fall. Amy Klobuchar’s up for a new six-year term and Tina Smith, Al Franken’s governor-appointed replacement, needs to win a special election to finish out his term. Beating Klobuchar would be a heavy lift as she’s won both of her previous Senate elections by more than 20 points and has national ambitions in 2020. Smith, however, is less known statewide than Pawlenty himself is. Her only public service prior to her appointment to the Senate was as Gov. Mark Dayton’s lieutenant governor. Could a two-term former guv like T-Paw steal a seat in a reddening state which Trump came within a point and a half of winning in 2016?
Maybe, but the midterm climate is what it is. If Hillary had edged past Trump two years ago and we were staring at another red wave this fall instead, I think Pawlenty very well might have taken on Smith. He might even be the favorite. But with a blue wave expected and Smith banking incumbency points day by day, beating any semi-prominent Democrat statewide in Minnesota is a major challenge. If he challenged Smith and lost, his political career would be over.
So he’s focusing on a more winnable race instead. Dayton, the current governor, decided not to run for a third term, leaving a Democratic field in disarray. The most prominent Dem is Rep. Tim Walz, who’s far less well known than Pawlenty himself and managed to win reelection to his seat in 2016 by less than a point. Pawlenty will still need to reckon with a blue wave, but with enough money and name recognition and a largely anonymous opponent, he may be able to handle it. It’ll be interesting having him on the trail this year to see how he reckons with Trump’s brand of blue-collar populism, which overlaps to some extent with his own. “I’m a populist!” he’ll assure Trump voters, “but not that kind of populist!” he’ll assure the state’s Democratic majority. (“You ran a banking lobbyist group!” Democrats will answer.) Is a blue-collar agenda shorn of Trump’s persona a stronger or weaker bet in Minnesota? We’ll find out.