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Five things we learned from the GOP debate between Jeff Johnson and Tim Pawlenty

They like Trump; they hate illegal immigration; and they don’t seem to care for each other very much, among other things. 

GOP gubernatorial candidates Jeff Johnson and Tim Pawlenty taking questions during Friday's debate.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

GOP gubernatorial candidates Tim Pawlenty and Jeff Johnson debated each other Friday morning on Minnesota Public Radio. Here are five things we learned from the first (public) joint appearance by the two candidates appearing Aug. 14 Republican primary ballot. 

1. They don’t seem to like each other very much.

Both Pawlenty, the former governor, and Johnson, a current Hennepin County commissioner, are affable politicians. But the first question asked of them by MPR political editor Mike Mulcahy invited each to respond to the other’s attack ads — and they were ready.

Before we get to those answers, though, some background: Johnson is trailing in fundraising and polling, so he has both wanted to and needed to get Pawlenty to engage him in forums and debates. Pawlenty hasn’t been eager to oblige. Friday’s studio forum was his first joint appearance with Johnson that could be heard by voters.

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That was the context for Johnson’s seething response to Pawlenty’s television ad that accused him of supporting higher taxes in Hennepin County and even endorsing Obamacare. “It was the most dishonest ad I’ve seen in politics and I’ve been doing this for a few years,” Johnson said. “I think this is just kind of old school politics. This is strategy from 10-20 years ago. You’re not out there engaging with voters. You’re sitting in a room raising money and then you spend the money to attack your opponent, and in this case, in a very dishonest way.”

Pawlenty didn’t exactly cower in response. He defended the ad (which has gotten low scores from fact checkers) and attacked Johnson as all talk, no action. “The point of the ad was if you’re going to hold yourself out as the ideal conservative, the perfect conservative and you’re not, then that looks hypocritical,” Pawlenty said before pulling out a schoolyard taunt.

“Jeff Johnson is a poser,” Pawlenty said. “He pretends that he’s for all these things, that he’s going to get all these things done. He’s been in politics all of his adult life and he’s actually accomplished none of them.” If Johnson wants to be considered a conservative leader, Pawlenty continued, he has to “do more than take up space and sit in a chair and vote ‘no.’”

Later, when debating who is a bigger supporter of President Trump, the pair frequently talked over each other, forcing Mulcahy to ask them to speak one at a time. Johnson wanted to remind current GOP voters that Pawlenty called Trump “unhinged” and rescinded his endorsement in 2016. Pawlenty said he did that after voting for Trump by absentee ballot and that while he was unhappy with Trump’s comment as recorded by Access Hollywood, he agrees with many of his policies.

Besides, Pawlenty said, Johnson had agreed in 2016 that Trump was a “jackass.”

“President Trump was a jackass until he became your hero,” Pawlenty said.

Countered Johnson: “I supported him. You told people not to vote for him.”

2. They really do think the path to the GOP nomination on Aug. 14 is to be more conservative than the other … lots more.

On immigration, refugee resettlement, lower spending, lower taxes, abortion and government interference in the lives of people and businesses, both sought to be the most conservative in the room, and on the ballot.

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That led to them questioning each other’s bona fides. Johnson argued that Pawlenty didn’t pursue the GOP endorsement in June because his candidacy doesn’t resonate with the GOP base. And he repeated a frequent criticism of Pawlenty — that the GOP rank and file were more disappointed in Pawlenty’s tenure as governor than in that of Arne Carlson. That’s because while both Carlson and Pawlenty governed from the middle, at least Carlson ran as a moderate.

Pawlenty said there is a difference between talking about governing from a conservative standpoint and actually doing it, as he did for eight years. “For anyone to look at that record, and many have, and say that’s not a conservative record … in a blue state of Minnesota — it’s a remarkably good record and I’m happy to defend it.”

Both took positions favoring limited immigration, with Johnson repeating his call for a suspension of refugee resettlements and Pawlenty saying he would pay for tax cuts and other initiatives by weeding out fraud and abuse in public assistance for refugees. Pawlenty even repeated a discredited news reports about Somali day care providers claiming reimbursements for non-existing children and shipping the money to Al Shabaab in Somalia.

And both pushed back against charges that they are using the issues as political wedges to divide the state. Johnson called it one of the biggest problems in society, that “some issues you can’t talk about unless you’re on one side of the spectrum, which usually is the left side.”

And Pawlenty disagreed with a listener-submitted question that they are federal, not state, issues. “We need to crack down on illegal immigration, to enforce our laws,” he said. “For people to say it’s not a legitimate topic or that it’s not something we should debate in the public square is ridiculous. It’s one of the most pressing issues facing our country.”

3. Pawlenty seems a bit more confident than Johnson that he’ll survive the primary and showed some interest in appealing to voters who aren’t among the most right-wing of the Republican Party.

The former two-term governor took slightly less-conservative positions than Johnson on two topics — abortion and guns — though “slightly” is the important word here. Unlike Johnson, he listed gun measures he could agree to, including a ban on bump stocks; employing universal background checks; extending the background check system on a voluntary basis to non-licensed gun sales; and keeping guns from those with mental illness.

And while he said both he and Johnson were anti-abortion, Pawlenty said he was skeptical that a new U.S. Supreme Court would change the Roe v. Wade decision and that a state Supreme Court ruling on the state constitution is similar to that of Roe. Yes, he would favor laws to reduce the number of abortions, including requiring women seeking abortions to be told of alternatives. But he said he doesn’t see the basic law on abortion changing.

4. Neither wants to out-Scott Walker Scott Walker on bargaining rights for public employees.

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Mulcahy asked if they would like to follow Walker’s lead in restricting the power of state and local government workers to bargain for pay and benefits. Both said they supported the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that will allow employees to opt out of union membership. Both said they supported collective bargaining and only Johnson said he would like to look at state-passed rules that he said tilt the bargaining balance toward employee unions.

5. Winning the endorsement of the Republican Party of Minnesota is valuable and important and should probably determine who represents the GOP in November … if you win it. If you don’t? Meh.

A listener submitted a question about why the GOP would engage in a divisive primary when the endorsement at the convention should decide the nominee. After arguing about how many people voted at the Duluth convention, Johnson said the process that he won is important.

“You say it’s a good process but you question whether we should even have conventions anymore,” Johnson said. “This is about many thousands of the most-active, engaged Republicans in the state. We need them if we want to win in November. These are the folks who pound the yard signs and knock on the doors and walk in parades and stuff envelopes for us.”

Pawlenty paid some fealty to the party and the rank and file and didn’t call for an end to convention endorsements, but then noted that only about 800 delegates in Duluth made the decision to endorse Johnson.

“We need to open up the process,” Pawlenty said. “When we have a primary in 10 days or so, we hope there will be well over 200,000 Minnesotans voting. There will still be the activists, there will still be some of the  most-motivated Republicans in the state. But it allows everyday people to participate, to have their voices heard.”