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Pawlenty and Coleman: A political Gordian Knot ready for cutting

Former Sen. Norm Coleman and Gov. Tim Pawlenty can’t seem to politically separate themselves. Since 2002, they have been tied up in a political Gordian Knot.   

Legend has it that the Gordian Knot, tied by the Phrygian god Sabazios, couldn’t be untied and that whoever did untie it would go on to conquer Asia.  In 333 B.C., Alexander the Great, according to varying versions, either sliced it with his sword or pulled it from its pole as it had been tied.

When Coleman switched to the Republican Party with significant fanfare in 1996 and went on to win Minnesota’s Senate seat in 2002, he was added to the long list of potential presidential or vice presidential candidates for some time down the road.  Now that high honor — and headache — belongs to Pawlenty.

Behind the scenes since 2002, both staff members and those in the media have sensed an uneasy tension between the two men and their camps.

It started with the infamous 2001 phone call from Vice President Cheney asking Pawlenty to step aside  to clear the path for Coleman in the Senate race. It now may end with Pawlenty’s decision to issue an election certificate to Al Franken, most likely once the Minnesota Supreme Court rules on a likely challenge of the results in the current election contest trial.

Early on in his Senate term, Coleman was close to President Bush, which worked well then but ultimately became one of the reasons he was highly vulnerable last year.  Pawlenty began to separate himself from the president in 2004 and 2006 by not appearing with Bush at every visit. And his political stock rose dramatically when he won re-election in 2006 against a statewide DFL wave and national Democratic tsunami. 

That immediately elevated him on the GOP list of national candidates. Add to that his homey style, a relatively strong profile as chair of the National Governors Association and his role with Sen. John McCain’s campaign.

Meanwhile, Coleman was preparing — and fighting — for his political life against an opponent that most in the GOP locally and nationally dismissed.

Now, political life for each of them once again depends on the other.

The difference is that this time the table has turned, and it’s Pawlenty who is viewed as the rising star. If anyone called anyone these days, the official would be calling Coleman, telling him to step aside, especially if Pawlenty needed it for his political future.

The calculation on both sides is growing with intensity. Despite national pressure, Pawlenty must determine how much political capital he can afford to spend to keep Coleman’s Senate seat open and for how long.

Coleman, on the other hand, is rapidly running out of capital with the public, and any appeal beyond the three-judge panel will cost him more. His best chance for a political comeback would be if Pawlenty doesn’t run again, according to the current political speculation.

Pawlenty’s choice is tough, too. If he were to issue Franken an election certificate before the case moved to the State Supreme Court or federal court, his loyalty would be questioned by national Republicans and would affect his national aspirations.

Coleman’s national chances for higher office are now limited, but he could be of benefit to Pawlenty by sharing his national fundraising base. National fundraising is thought to be a significant Pawlenty weakness. And depending on the governor’s decision and relations between the two men, Pawlenty could make good use for his 2012 aspirations of Coleman’s network that he developed as a senator and now while raising funds for the National Republican Jewish Federation.

In the middle of an intense budget battle, Pawlenty also is likely being lobbied heavily by Republicans behind the scenes to not issue a certificate. Coleman, too, may face lobbying from those wanting him to step aside for the sake of the Minnesota GOP, and his own political future.

As Coleman no doubt eyes his next steps, he knows that Pawlenty has grown since 2002 in politically maturity and savvy. The governor also has far more political capital than Coleman, but during a GOP “recession,” Pawlenty has to spend it wisely.

Nationally, it’s Pawlenty this time who can ask for someone to make a call. Sen. John McCain owes Pawlenty for his loyalty and discipline. As the elder statesman of the GOP, McCain is likely the only one who could tell Coleman and National Republican Senate Committee Chairman Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that it’s Coleman’s turn to defer.

Deferring isn’t something Coleman’s done, not since Vietnam and never to Pawlenty. The irony isn’t lost, but the political Gordian Knot may finally be cut and Pawlenty finally may be free to try to conquer his own political future.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/06/2009 - 06:45 am.

    The reversal of fortunes between Gov. Pawlenty and Sen. Coleman has been evident for a long time, and it has been a subject of curiousity for me.

    What, if anything, happened to Norm Coleman? How did he turn from a rising star to someone who could manage no better than a virtual tie against perhaps one of the weaker candidates the Democrats could have fielded against him?

    I do have some theories. I think it can be tough for a U.S. senator to maintain his standing and political presence back home. I think the job of Republicans in the senate is to prevent things from happening, and when you do that it’s a hard place to develop stature. During the last election, only John McCain, a media and self-proclaimed maverick was the only serious Republican candidate for president from the senate. Sen. Brownback, whod did run for president now intends to leave the senate and run for governor of Kansas.

    Any thoughts?

  2. Submitted by Brian Simon on 04/06/2009 - 11:11 am.

    The problem faced by the Governor is that he has to balance his political aspirations between the competing constituents of voters and party leaders. Inside the beltway, party leaders like Senators Cornyn & McConnell are more interested in keeping Franken out of the Senate than in Pawlenty’s political future. Meanwhile, voters in MN are wondering why this process is taking so long. Once the court rules, the Dems will raise the volume of their criticism of Pawlenty. Writers here (Black, Weiner) speculate that the court’s opinion will conclude that they are the final word at the state level; the Senate being the next (and final) arbiter. If Coleman chooses to continue the fight – and all signs point to him following the direction of the national party – Pawlenty will be on the hotseat. To whom will he stand up – the voters in MN or the party leaders in DC?

  3. Submitted by Tom Poe on 04/06/2009 - 11:33 am.

    We’re talking about two members of the Party of Corporate Welfare, as if they were legitimate political figures. This is a joke, right?

  4. Submitted by Jeff Goldenberg on 04/06/2009 - 11:57 am.


    Pawlenty’s political rise is built on a solid conservative base of support. His supporters today are the same people and constituencies who have supported him throughout his career. They know what to expect from him and have rarely been disappointed. Pawlenty’s job is to climb the political mountain with one eye on the next peak and one eye on the ones who brung him.

    Coleman’s rise has always been at the expense of the last constituency. His career is not just marked by a party switch – he’s a chameleon even within each party. Why did Cheney make his call? At the time, Coleman was a Bush guy. As Bush’s stock dropped, who jumped early? Norm of course. As the ’08 election neared, the joke among Dems in the know was that Amy had two votes, hers and Norm’s. When it suited his immediate needs, Coleman basically became a Klobuchar Republican. Depending how you look at it, Norm either has no friendsd left or never had any in the first place. He ios paying the price of me, me, me.

  5. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 04/06/2009 - 03:22 pm.

    If the past is precedent,… it makes me sad to see how shamelessly the national Republican party has and will continue to play both of these men for patsies.

    They will continue to require Mr. Coleman to do everything in his power to prevent Mr. Franken from being seated, even though it has probably already destroyed his hope of any future political career.

    Gov. Pawlenty will continue to do their bidding, up to and including forcing the MN Supreme Court to order him to issue an election certificate in the near future after he refuses to do so, even when Mr. Franken loses his final MN challenge, in the hope that the leaders of the national party will throw him a some small crumb of recognition or appreciation or a nomination to SOME national position, but they never will.

    Yet, almost as if they were members of a cult, both men will continue to do as they’re told. Neither will ever think for himself, no matter what it might cost them, to keep following the party line,… even if it means they go down with the ship.

  6. Submitted by Joe Musich on 04/06/2009 - 11:15 pm.

    The Southern strategy of Richard Nixion along with his implmentation of red baiting still has a life of it’s own ! It’s time for schools to be teaching about logical fallicies. Until the citizenry has a grap of these failures in logic in argument we will continue to suffer politically. Maybe Minnpost could use some of it’s resources for education and take some of it’s blog posts and analyze/assess rhe commentary for what it is.

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