Pawlenty loss shows Minnesota GOP’s reluctance to coronate

Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, August 15, 2018

ST. PAUL — As the last Republican to win statewide in traditionally blue Minnesota, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty hoped to be the party’s savior by running for his old job. Voters instead chose a lesser-known local official who didn’t carry the stigma of the GOP establishment or of calling President Donald Trump “unhinged.”

The defeat had echoes of Pawlenty’s short-lived 2012 presidential campaign, when the Midwestern governor and self-styled “Sam’s Club Republican” was briefly looked at as a top contender before fading quickly after a dismal showing at the 2011 Iowa straw poll.

After his loss Tuesday to Jeff Johnson, Pawlenty said he’s done running for office.

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“This is the era of Trump, and I don’t fit into that very well,” Pawlenty told Minnesota Public Radio News after conceding. “We knew the ground had shifted, but I think we thought there was still a reservoir of support from Pawlenty supporters we could draw upon to win this thing. But that turned out not to be the case.”

Johnson, a county commissioner and failed 2014 nominee, carried the party endorsement but was still considered the underdog due to Pawlenty’s name recognition and fundraising prowess.

Many Republicans viewed the former two-term governor as their only shot at retaking an office that has eluded them since he left it in 2011. Most rivals dropped out even before Pawlenty declared for the race.

The money quickly rushed to Pawlenty’s side. He quickly raised $1 million, and outside political groups promised a multi-million dollar ad barrage on his behalf for the fall. But Pawlenty struggled to reconnect with the Republican support he needed to make it to November.

He had to live down a scathing critique in October 2016 of then-candidate Trump, whom he called “unhinged and unfit for the presidency.” He and Johnson often clashed in debates over who had insulted the president worse.

For all his advantages, Pawlenty also had the aura of an establishment politician trying to force his way back to Minnesota after spending six-plus years in Washington, D.C., as a high-powered lobbyist for the nation’s largest banks. And he didn’t bother competing for the party’s backing in a June convention, citing his late entry in the race but upsetting some activists.

Pawlenty ran a race with an eye on Trump voters. He assured them he had voted for Trump despite his harsh comments, and supported the administration’s policies.

And some of his advertising borrowed hard-line Republican imagery. One ad showed immigrants crawling over a fence as he called to remove from public health care programs immigrants living in the country illegally, even though the state audit he cited hadn’t found evidence that immigrants were responsible for any such fraud.

Fresh off his upset victory, Johnson said he took no pleasure in ending Pawlenty’s political career.

“People are just looking for something different,” he said. “Through no fault of Tim’s, they just didn’t see him as that.”