If Tim Pawlenty is the next vice president of the United States, a significant if, then Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau is the next governor of Minnesota, a constitutional certainty.
She will have two years remaining on Pawlenty’s term. That would be time enough to test drive the state, take if for a spin around the block to see how it feels and let the folks see her behind the wheel. Then does the controversial former commissioner of the Department of Transportation become the presumptive Republican nominee for a full four-year term as governor?
Molnau would appeal to part of the Republican base. As MDOT’s top dog, she was solidly against a gas tax increase, even while Pawlenty was wavering. As commissioner she was against the North Star commuter rail line, even when Pawlenty switched tracks and supported it. And she never was a Central Corridor light rail advocate, while Pawlenty warmed up to it, then derailed it with a line-item veto in the bonding bill. In addition, the feisty lite guv has racked up experience with five terms in the House and service on the Chaska City Council.
Not bad creds if she wants the governor’s office on her own.
“Molnau certainly fits the bill of a loyal Republican with the issue stances that fit well with the core party activists,” says Gustavus Adolphus College political science head Chris Gilbert.
But that doesn’t make her the presumptive nominee at the party’s state convention. A major bridge fell during her watch, people died, and the commissioner’s response was less than stellar. The Legislative Auditor hammered Molnau and her agency in a report that was critical of MDOT’s funding and maintenance of the state’s road system.
“Her tenure as lieutenant governor has been rocky, to say the least, and even Republican insiders thinking clearly would have to agree that her negative public image is not just a creation of DFL attacks or simply politics as usual,” Gilbert said in an email response to MinnPost questions. “Does [Molnau], who did not effectively run a state agency, have a strong case that she could run the state government as a whole?”
Molnau has not said she is interested in a run for the governor’s office, and is not granting interviews, so the question cannot be asked of her. Simply being the lieutenant governor does not cloak that person with the presumption of being endorsed for that office when a vacancy occurs.
When Republican Arne Carlson retired as governor in 1998, Joanne Benson, his second lieutenant governor, did not step in as the next candidate. It was Norm Coleman. Coleman, now Minnesota’s Republican U.S. senator, lost the 1998 governor’s race to Jesse Ventura. Indeed, Pawlenty himself was not the presumptive nominee in 2002.
But if Molnau does fill Pawlenty’s term for two years, her name would have to be in the mix for a full term starting in 2011. She would have been in the spotlight for two years, long enough to push ideas of her own and be tested by the Legislature, which likely would continue to be dominated by DFLers.
Charlie Weaver, a former Republican House member who also served in Pawlenty and Ventura administration, and is now the executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, says he expects there would be a line of wannabes if Pawlenty becomes vice president. He also suggests that the Republican bench is not too strong. “Right now the Democrats are clearly more prepared than the Republicans are,” he said. That is because many Republicans expect Pawlenty won’t be vice president, but will run for a third term as governor.
Other Republicans besides Molnau? Some who come to mind without checking on their availability: House Minority Leader Marty Seifert of Marshall; Minnesota businessman Brian Sullivan; House Assistant Minority Leader Laura Brod of New Prague; Weaver himself; U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of the Sixth District if she loses her reelection bid this year; St. Cloud Mayor and former state senator Dave Kleis. There are more.