Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota’s hockey-playing governor, has been skating on thin ice for much of his political career.
Yet, here he is, weeks away from the Republican National Convention, still on John McCain’s short list as a potential running mate. Here he is, giving a speech at the National Press Club. Here he is, seen as a man with a big future in his party, no matter the outcome of this year’s election.
It would be easy to minimize Pawlenty as one of the country’s luckiest politicians.
After all, Pawlenty was rebuffed by the Bush White House when he wanted to run for the U.S. Senate six years ago. (“We want Norm Coleman,” Vice President Dick Cheney told Pawlenty.) This is a politician who needed 17 hours and 12 ballots to defeat a relative unknown, Brian Sullivan, to win his party’s endorsement for governor in 2002. He has yet to win 50 percent of the statewide vote in his two runs for governor, and he needed a last-moment meltdown by Mike Hatch to win the 2006 election by a single percentage point.
So many times Pawlenty has stood face to face with political oblivion, yet he’s never looked stronger.
Should Pawlenty’s symbol be a four-leaf clover?
Tom Horner, an aide to former Sen. Dave Durenberger and a student of Republican politics, agrees there’s an element of luck in Pawlenty’s career.
“But as is the case in most of life, luck is usually the residue of hard work and intelligence,” Horner said.
‘Sam’s Club speech’ resonates, connects with reality
Take the “Sam’s Club’s” speech Pawlenty delivered to the Press Club in Washington on Wednesday. It shows Pawlenty’s ability to connect with reality. Others have used the “Sam’s Club” reference, but Pawlenty is running with it.”We want to be the party of Sam’s Club, not just the country club,” is the Pawlenty line.
It’s a smart speech, calling on Republicans not to be afraid of being a party of ideas. And it’s a smart speech in subtle ways.
“Sam’s Club” was not just picked out of the air. Horner points out that a 2004 Zogby poll showed that where you shop shows how you’ll vote. Those who shopped at department stores such as Bloomingdales overwhelmingly supported the Kerry-Edwards ticket over Bush-Cheney. Those who shopped at Target were split down the middle politically. But those who shopped at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club overwhelming supported Bush-Cheney.
“Zogby’s done the same polling this year,” Horner said. “Though there’s been some … erosion for Republicans, Sam’s Club shoppers strongly support Republicans.”
Pawlenty’s not a great speaker, Horner agreed. But he’s good enough.
And what people may not appreciate about him is the fact that he has built his career on hard work that has led to connections that in turn have led to success, lucky or otherwise.
Pawlenty paid his dues, picked his spots
Horner first met him when Pawlenty was an intern, “schlepping Durenberger around.” At the time, he also was working hard at building up the College Republican club at the University of Minnesota.
He’s come up through the ranks. Served as a city council member in Eagan, elected to the Minnesota House in 1991. Elected by his party peers as majority leader in the House in 1996. That support of his peers proved crucial in Pawlenty’s first “lucky” break.
Go back to 2002. Pawlenty was ready to move out of the Legislature and on to bigger and better things, which shows another one of his strengths, according to Horner.
“He believes that when you’re ready, you’ve got to make your move,” Horner said.
In 2002, Pawlenty wanted to move into the governor’s race. But rank-and-file Republicans wanted him to stay out. Their guy was Sullivan, the highly successful, conservative-to-the-core businessman.
“I was 40; he was 41,” recalled Sullivan. “At one point, we met in sort of a feeling-out session. I told him, ‘I’ve been out there. Don’t improperly read me. I am determined to win.’ Tim said he understood. He said that he had been thinking of running for governor but had also been thinking of running for senator (against Norm Coleman, with the winner to meet Paul Wellstone).”
After the meeting with Sullivan, Pawlenty decided the Senate race looked more doable.
That’s when the Cheney call came: Stay out of the Senate race; that’s for Coleman.
“As soon as he stood down for the Senate race, I knew he was going to run for governor, and I knew it would be close,” said Sullivan.
Just before the 2000 Republican state convention was called to order, Pawlenty signed off on the “no new taxes pledge” that was the gospel of conservatives. The stage was set for the long, long, long endorsement vote.
On the first ballot, Sullivan picked up 51 percent of delegate support, with 60 percent needed for endorsement. By the fourth ballot, Sullivan recalled, Pawlenty had pulled even. The true-conservative believers were staying with Sullivan, but Pawlenty had the support of people he’d cultivated for years, other state legislators. They worked the floor hard on his behalf, Sullivan recalled.
Those legislators weren’t working for Pawlenty because he was “lucky.” They were working for him because he’d worked with them.
“When you’re in the middle of something like that, you can feel momentum shift,” said Sullivan.
The businessman yielded after the 12th ballot.
“If I’d lost to somebody I didn’t respect, it would have been harder,” says Sullivan, who remains active as a member of the party’s national committee. He has not ruled out the possibility of another run for governor.
Three’s a charm in 2006 governor’s race factors
Then, in the general election, Pawlenty was thrice-blessed:
First, the DFL endorsed Roger Moe over two competent women, Judi Dutcher, the highly popular state auditor at the time, and Becky Lourey, a state senator at the time and the darling of the left. To this day, most Republicans believe that Dutcher, who was at the height of her popularity, would have been extremely difficult to beat. But the party faithful believed they “owed” the endorsement to Moe, the long-serving Senate majority leader.
Second, Tim Penny, a lifelong DFLer, ignored the pleas of Moe and jumped into the race as the Independent Party’s candidate for govenor to replace retiring IP Gov. Jesse Ventura.
“He told one of my staff assistants he wasn’t going to run, then he did,” said Moe. “We ended up going after the same votes.”
Third, the Wellstone memorial service. That event, which many thought turned into a DFL political event, served to rally Republicans. In addition to costing him votes and strengthening Republican resolve, Moe believes the event disgusted some people who had planned to vote for Penny and led to an angry Ventura appointing Dean Barkley to fill the final days of Wellstone’s seat.
“I thought we could win a three-way race with 36 to 37 percent of the vote,” said Moe, the consummate political counter. But Moe’s poll numbers and Penny’s both collapsed in the days after the memorial service.
“I ended up with 36 percent,” recalled Moe, “but Penny really fell. He should have got about 25 percent, but in the final analysis, he could only get 16 percent. That was it.”
Pawlenty, who won with 44 percent of the vote in 2002, had Hatch’s temper to thank for his 2006 win. Recall that Hatch’s running mate, Dutcher, had flubbed a question about E-85 in the final week of the campaign. The flub had been caught on videotape, which soon was getting big play.
Rather than handle the mistake with either decorum or humor, Hatch, despite the best efforts of his advisers to calm him down, exploded at the media. The phrase that Minnesota voters recalled about Hatch when they headed to the polls was “Republican whore,” which was what Hatch called a reporter who was questioning him about Dutcher and E-85.
Pawlenty was grim-faced and trailing in the polls in the days leading up to the election. But in the final debate of the campaign, just four days before the election, Pawlenty scored his points with this comment about Hatch: “The larger issue is the attorney general’s handling of the (E-85) situation. Sadly, he has a long record of this type of behavior and these kind of comments. This isn’t new, and it’s just now coming through in this campaign.”
On election day, he slipped past Hatch — and two years later, he’s on the VP short list and giving “Sam’s Club” speeches at the Press Club.
Ron Carey, chairman of the Republican Party in Minnesota, says that Pawlenty likely was fortunate that Hatch imploded. But, he noted, you have to be in a position to take advantage of breaks when they come.
“If you’re like Mark Kennedy and you’re 20 points down to Amy Klobuchar (in the 2006 Senate race), it doesn’t matter how many flubs your opponent makes,” said Carey. “You’ve got to be in the game if you’re going to seize the opportunity.”
Pawlenty was close enough to Hatch to seize the win.
Of course. Large numbers of able politicians have fallen by the wayside for lack of a good break.
But Horner points out that Pawlenty’s in the position he’s in because he’s not been afraid of risk.
“Look back a year and a half ago,” said Horner. “How many Republicans were out there on the road campaigning for John McCain then?”
Doug Grow, a former metro columnist for the Star Tribune, writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.