The polls were closed and a reporter was trying to find a real person at Tim Pawlenty’s election night party.
He found politicians and political staffers and political appointees gathered in the crowd at Granite City Food & Brewery in Eagan.
But when reporters go looking for real people, they want the people who have better things to do on a Tuesday night than mingle with candidates dressed in everyman plaid — but show up anyway.
They’re looking for the volunteers who spent months knocking on doors and stuffing envelopes and manning phone banks. The voters who pored over campaign pamphlets and sat through debates before planting someone’s name on their lawn. The ones who hold their breath when the early results trickle in and cry when the race is called.
As the results rolled in, the crowd slowly realized that they wouldn’t be going home with the Pawlenty/Fischbach signs stacked and waiting behind the stage. The two-term governor of Minnesota would not be getting a third.
“The Republican Party has shifted,” Pawlenty, who once described candidate Donald Trump as “unhinged and unfit,” said afterward. “It is the era of Trump, and I’m just not a Trump-like politician.”
GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson won the night and earned an approving tweet from the president the next morning. As far as the national political analysts were concerned, the campaign postmortem was complete. Cause of death: Trump Train.
“It was one last piece of confirmation of something we already knew — this is not Tim Pawlenty’s Republican Party anymore. This is Donald Trump’s party,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report, who is tracking the nation’s gubernatorial elections. “Pawlenty’s loss is especially poignant. There was a time, at least I remember it, when Pawlenty was a really popular governor.”
But that was years ago and Pawlenty spent the years since in Washington, lobbying for the big banks. Minnesotans had their own explanations for the three-peat defeat.
“People are tired of insiders and career politicians who do what Tim did,” said Andy Aplikowski, a Minnesota delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2016.
Pawlenty raised more than $2 million during the primary and spent about a million of it. Along the way, he produced slick ads, like one that accused Johnson, a staunchly conservative Hennepin County commissioner, of profligate taxing and spending.
“The establishment mentality that you can run a bunch of ads and look glitzy and glamorous just doesn’t work. It’s a lot more, getting out and talking with people and relating to people,” Aplikowski said. “The retail politics side of things really matters, especially in a primary.”
Pawlenty’s shell-shocked supporters searched for explanations Tuesday night. Was it backlash against the Johnson attack ad? Had he spent too much time raising money and not enough time reconnecting with the grass-roots Republicans he’d left behind? Had Johnson’s “Finger in the wind” ad convinced voters that Pawlenty’s early Trump criticism was motivated more by polls than principle? Should he have marched in more parades, kissed more babies and participated in more debates?
“Obviously there was some resources that could have been spent better to getting his message … out,” said state Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville. “Probably the negative ad that [Pawlenty] did, I think probably backfired on the campaign. In hindsight, maybe they would have done that different.”
Or maybe the problem was just that the crowd of people in the room with Pawlenty on election night wasn’t much larger than the group of A-list donors who huddled with him six months earlier and convinced him to run in the first place.
Dan Hofrenning, a political science professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, noted that parachuting back into your home state to run for governor is a difficult move for any politician whose name isn’t Rudy Perpich.
“In his campaign, he never really made the case for what he was going to do as governor. His ads didn’t have much focus, he didn’t come back and talk about what his vision for Minnesota was,” Hofrenning said. “On a small scale, Tim Pawlenty running for governor was like Jeb Bush running for president. Everyone thought he had it nailed, he raised a ton of money, but it just didn’t seem to go anywhere.”