When Bill Kristol reported in May that the McCain team was talking up Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal as their possible vice-presidential selection, it struck me that the talk must be a cover for Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. Twice elected governor of a blue state that President Bush almost carried twice, Pawlenty is between Mitt Romney and Bobby Jindal in age (47), experience, and intangible factors. Since Kristol’s column appeared Romney has emerged as a front runner, but Pawlenty remains a worthy dark horse.
True, it’s unlikely he’ll help McCain carry Minnesota; though Pawlenty remains a popular governor, McCain isn’t even close in the state. Minnesota is prime, antiwar Obama country. If our formidable Republican senator Norm Coleman were facing a generic Democrat this November, even he would be in serious trouble. (As it is, the Democrats have done him the favor of nominating the comedian who hasn’t been funny since the expiration of the Al Franken Decade in 1990 to oppose him. Senator Coleman may survive.)
In any event, the focus on geography is a bit misleading. When was the last time electoral geography played a serious role in the Republican nominee’s selection of a running mate? Perhaps when Arizona’s Barry Goldwater reached out to New York’s Bill Miller in 1964, but the precedent is not exactly auspicious. On the Democratic side, one has to go back even farther, to Kennedy’s selection of Johnson in 1960, to find a good example of electoral geography exerting an obvious influence.
If not his state’s electoral votes, what does Pawlenty stand to offer McCain? In the current issue of National Review, John Miller rightly credits Pawlenty (along with former congressman Rob Portman of Ohio) with a possible ability to help McCain “tip the scales in swing states.” Pawlenty’s relatively conservative credentials come with a genuine blue-collar background that gives him a tremendous personal appeal. He grew up with four siblings in South St. Paul, where his father supported the family as a truck driver. Pawlenty’s mother died of cancer when he was 16. Pawlenty fulfilled her wish that he would be the first in the family to attend college (he put himself through the University of Minnesota for undergraduate and law school).
Pawlenty’s people skills come across in person and on television. He is unflappable and remarkably good-humored. He recently made news with comments that may strike a chord among those alienated by Barack Obama’s sermon to the San Francisco Democrats. After spending a weekend enjoying the state’s fishing opener with his lovely wife Mary, he commented to one of the big Twin Cities radio stations: “I have a wife who genuinely loves to fish. She loves football, she’ll go to hockey games, and I jokingly say, ‘Now, if I could only get her to have sex with me.’”
Serving in the Minnesota legislature from a suburban Twin Cities district, Pawlenty’s Republican colleagues elected him the state house majority leader in 1999 at age 38. He held together the Republican caucus with a margin of one vote, doing battle with Independent governor Jesse Ventura and the Democratic state senate. In 2002 he cruised to the governorship in a competitive three-way race. In 2006, he narrowly survived the Democratic tide that decimated the state’s Republican ranks. (I wrote about the race for NRO.)
Pawlenty has had a long, friendly relationship with McCain. Indeed, McCain campaigned with Pawlenty in northern Minnesota in 2006, and Pawlenty signed up as co-chair of the McCain campaign at its inception. When his role in the McCain campaign was announced last year, I interviewed him; Pawlenty told me what he told Sarah Baxter of the London Times for an article last month: “If you look at the way Senator McCain has lived his life, it’s an incredible expression of commitment, duty, valour and patriotism.” Pawlenty admires Senator McCain personally and appreciates his appeal to voters beyond the Republican base.
Pawlenty has been prescient in worrying about the Republican party’s shrinking appeal. In a 2007 profile for The Weekly Standard, Matthew Continetti documented Pawlenty’s efforts to reformulate and extend the Republican brand with an appeal to “Sam’s Club Republicans.” It is an appeal that John McCain might find he could put to good use in November with Pawlenty on his ticket.
— Scott W. Johnson is a Minneapolis attorney and contributor to Power Line.