By Jim EllisApril 9, 2018 — Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), who briefly became a presidential candidate in 2012, ventured back into the active campaign world late last week. Though routinely indicating that he had “retired” from elective politics after serving eight years as the state’s governor and then dipping his toe into the presidential campaign waters, Pawlenty is now again an active political candidate.
The Minnesota gubernatorial race is an open contest. Though the state does not impose term limits on its governor, Democratic incumbent Mark Dayton has chosen to retire after eight years in office. Prior to winning the governor’s office, Dayton served one term in the United States Senate.
But Pawlenty’s run will not be an easy one. Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson (R), who held Gov. Dayton to a 50-45 percent re-election victory in 2014, pledged to continue his own campaign saying that, “Pawlenty has never gotten over 46 percent of the vote in a statewide election, even after four years of being governor, and that was before a controversial second term, before he made $10 million as a Washington, D.C. lobbyist, and he publicly trashed Donald Trump a month before Election Day.”
Minnesota politics features a major state endorsing convention in June before the August primary. Most of the time, candidates who do not receive enough delegate support to win an official state party endorsement usually end their campaigns and support the one who did secure the backing. Such unity may not appear in this Republican battle, however. It is unclear if Pawlenty will even enter the convention because precinct caucuses to choose state delegates have been underway since February and Johnson has fared well in early straw polls. Should Pawlenty force a primary, which appears to be his ultimate choice, it is clear that there will be an ensuing battle between he and Commissioner Johnson for the nomination.
Democrats feature US Rep. Tim Walz (D-Mankato), who was only re-elected in 2016 with 50.3 percent of the vote in his southern Minnesota congressional district, state Auditor Rebecca Otto, and state Rep. Erin Murphy (D-St. Paul). The Republican field is viewed as the weaker, hence the active movement by certain party leaders to convince Pawlenty to enter the race.
But, with President Trump only losing Minnesota by 1.5 percentage points and Republicans coming very close to converting two Democratic congressional districts in the last election, the Republicans are becoming more viable at the statewide level. Therefore, the governor’s race — with accompanying federal redistricting ramifications, because Minnesota is very likely to lose one of its eight congressional seats in the next reapportionment — is becoming nationally important.
Additionally, the state features two US Senate races as incumbent Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) is running for a third term and appointed Sen. Tina Smith (D) must also earn confirmation from the voters for the right to serve the balance of resigned Sen. Al Franken’s (D) term. While Sen. Klobuchar is safe for re-election, state Sen. Karen Housley (R-St. Mary’s County) is readying her statewide campaign that could develop into an interesting challenge. Though Sen. Smith was the state’s lieutenant governor before being appointed to succeed Sen. Franken, she has never been on the statewide ballot in a stand-alone race. In Minnesota, as in several other states, the governor and lieutenant governor run as a ticket.
The governor’s race is important for the US House, too. Minnesota features four highly competitive congressional campaigns: the two open Democratic seat (those being vacated by Walz and retiring Rep. Rick Nolan) and two vulnerable incumbent Republican races in the Minneapolis suburbs (the seats of Reps. Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen).
Having a strong gubernatorial candidate to help drive GOP turnout will not only put the party in position to convert the governor’s mansion and help make the Smith Senate challenge more viable, but also potentially save and convert the aforementioned congressional seats, in addition to holding and possibly expanding upon the party’s majorities in the state House and Senate.
Minnesota is one of the more important states in the 2018 midterm elections, and Pawlenty’s re-entry into state politics has ratcheted the political activity level to a heightened degree.