Politics & Policy

Code Blue in Minnesota

How a rising Republican star finds himself in a tough fight for reelection.

When Republican Tim Pawlenty was elected governor of Minnesota in a three-way race to succeed Jesse Ventura in 2002, conservatives all over the country took note. Here was a boyishly handsome, charismatic conservative who had been elected governor in famously liberal Minnesota, home of Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. At the Council on National Policy meeting of conservative activists in Orlando early last year, Pawlenty was prominently discussed as a possible 2008 presidential hopeful.

Pawlenty’s record has lived up to his billing. Entering office with an inherited budget deficit of $4.3 billion, Pawlenty balanced the budget without raising taxes. By 2005 the state had achieved a projected budget surplus of $700 million. During his four years in office the state has achieved substantial job growth. Last month the state unemployment rate was 3.8 percent, one of the lowest in the country. If there is a governor running for reelection on a stronger record, I don’t know who he or she is.

Pawlenty has been his own most effective public spokesman. He is funny, self-deprecating, articulate, and virtually impossible to dislike. He has the skills of a born politician, especially in small groups, and is a skilled debater. He is excellent at retail politics. Yet in his bid for reelection next week he stands on the verge of defeat. Why?

Pawlenty’s challenger is Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch, a man with an equally formidable, if different, set of political skills. He has successfully run two statewide political campaigns, achieving a 55 percent majority last time around in 2002 — a feat no other Democratic candidate has achieved in the past eight years. In office he has adeptly cultivated the image of a fighter for the little guy.

By contrast with Pawlenty, however, Hatch is — how to say it? — not well-liked, not trustworthy and given to the arts of a schoolyard bully. In a highly public fight this summer with a state district-court judge whom he had sought to remove from a case, for example, the judge provided evidence indicating that Hatch had engaged in professional misconduct — misconduct that Hatch had sought to cover up with highly misleading statements submitted under oath.

If the adage that a campaign for reelection is a referendum on the incumbent applied, Pawlenty would win going away. Unfortunately, the incumbent on whom Pawlenty’s reelection may be measured is President Bush, who is probably more unpopular in Minnesota than in the rest of the country. The headwinds that have blown in the face of Republicans nationwide this year are blowing with particular strength in Minnesota. Pawlenty’s current difficulties are attributable in great part to the difficulties that confront Republicans running for reelection in other swing or blue states such as Missouri and Pennsylvania. To his everlasting credit, Pawlenty has steadfastly continued to proclaim his friendship with President Bush and his support for the war.

Moreover, it is easy to underestimate the challenge inherent in Pawlenty’s campaign for reelection. He has in fact proved a quite conservative politician in a state with a strong liberal heritage. Over his term Pawlenty has adhered (more or less) to the no-tax-increase pledge he took in the 2002 campaign. The uproar over the adjustments necessary to achieve a balanced budget without tax increases took a toll on Pawlenty in a state that is more accustomed to tax increases than budget cuts.

And the Minneapolis Star Tribune presents a perennial challenge for Republicans in Minnesota. The paper dominates news coverage in the state and operates like the public relations arm of the state Democratic party. Its editorial page has been a relentless critic of Pawlenty. By itself the paper stakes Democratic candidates to a significant advantage in statewide races. In January 2005 I mentioned to Governor Pawlenty a Star Tribune column that seemed to have no purpose other than getting me fired from my day job. “Welcome to my world,” Pawlenty responded.

The Star Tribune’s Minnesota Poll is instrumental in suppressing Republican morale. It tends to tilt Democratic compared with actual election results, a tilt that the Star Tribune’s pollster has comically attributed to a traditional Republican closing surge in Minnesota. On October 14 the Star Tribune published a Minnesota Poll showing Hatch leading Pawlenty 46-37 percent in a three-way race. The poll was taken in the midst of the media mania over Mark Foley; the poll’s timing seemed more calculated to demoralize Pawlenty supporters than to provide an accurate gauge of the race. In two previous Minnesota Polls Pawlenty and Hatch had run even.

This weekend the Star Tribune will publish its final preelection poll. If past experience is any guide, the poll will show Pawlenty with approximately five percent less of the vote than he will get in the actual election results on Tuesday. In a message sent to me on Monday for this piece, a Pawlenty campaign staffer described the race as a “dead heat” and commented: “If this thing is close headed into election day, we’ll win. Our superior GOTV effort and 72-hour plan will get us across the finish line.” It’s a message whose diffidence seems to speak for itself.

Nevertheless, as of the end of this week, momentum seems to have shifted back to Pawlenty. John Kerry had been scheduled to travel to Minnesota for campaign appearances on the evening that the “get an education or get stuck in Iraq” story exploded into the news. The soldiers who fired the shot heard ‘round the world with their “Halp us Jon Carry” banner turned out to be a Minnesota National Guard unit (the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Division), giving the story local currency. Then Hatch’s running mate showed off her ignorance of a key agricultural issue. Pawlenty pounced. Hatch responded to a reporter who asked him about it with one of his patented displays of anger mismanagement, calling the (male) reporter “a Republican whore.” If Governor Pawlenty pulls this one out on Tuesday, the Greek philosopher who taught that “character is fate” will have been proved right again, twice over.

Scott W. Johnson is a Minneapolis attorney and contributor to the weblog Power Line .


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