As former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty moves toward another run for his old job, the hype accompanying his potential comeback has obscured an important question: A dozen years past his last time on a Minnesota ballot, what kind of candidate would he actually be?
Pawlenty, who last week quit his job as a top Washington lobbyist for major banks, is meeting this week with key donors and political allies to talk about what it would take to relaunch him as a politician. Supporters and foes alike have cited Pawlenty's formidable fundraising potential, with a wide and deep network that extends from Minnesota to Wall Street, and familiarity among voters built in eight years as governor, from 2003 to 2011.
But Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney alike showed that good name recognition, and the connections that accommodate raising and spending vast sums on a campaign, are no guarantee of success in an era of grass-roots social media activism. Recent election cycles have shown voters growing cynical of candidates with establishment ties and weary of paid advertising.
Not to worry, say supporters: Pawlenty, who declined an interview request for this story, will bring the same set of political skills that made him the last Republican to win a statewide race in Minnesota.
"He has an ability to connect with people that is unique," said Alex Conant, a Minnesotan who was Pawlenty's spokesman during his short-lived presidential campaign and is now a D.C.-based consultant. "It's because he's 100 percent authentic and has lived a life story that average people can relate to," he said.
The last time Pawlenty faced Minnesota voters was in 2006, when he was narrowly re-elected against a national Democratic wave. In both his races, Pawlenty won with less than a majority of votes; both times, he ran against both a DFL candidate and an Independence Party candidate with a DFL background.
Pawlenty opted against seeking a third term in 2010, as he prepared for his 2012 presidential bid. He was among the first major candidates to drop out of that race after showing weak support ahead of the Iowa caucus.
Pawlenty's detractors, including the man who would most likely be his chief rival for the Republican nomination, said the former governor's time has passed, that he is out of touch with the Republican base and its fervent support of President Donald Trump.
Just weeks before the 2016 election, Pawlenty dropped his support for Trump. He called him "unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit" in a statement issued to Minnesota media at that time. Trump "is unwilling or unable to demonstrate even the most basic level of discipline, character and judgment," Pawlenty said then.
"That will be a significant problem for him with some Republican voters," said Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who won the GOP straw poll at last week's precinct caucuses with 45 percent of the vote. Pawlenty's name was not on the poll's ballot.
"Once you leave the state and become part of what some call 'the swamp,' it does change things — whether you want it to or not," Johnson said, in reference to Pawlenty's lobbying work, and borrowing one of Trump's favorite characterizations of Washington as a swamp that needs to be drained.
Johnson was the GOP's nominee for governor in 2014, losing to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. He has emerged as a front-runner in the field of declared candidates, but has lagged in fundraising — and has two previous statewide losses compared to Pawlenty's two wins.
Still, Johnson predicted that Republican activists would look dimly on Pawlenty if he bypasses the state GOP endorsing convention in June and goes straight to the Republican primary in August.
"If he seeks to parachute in and buy a primary, I don't think it would work out well for him, even if he could outspend me 4-to-1," Johnson said.
Even Pawlenty's potential supporters acknowledge that he would have to present a fresh vision for a third term.
"Reintroducing him to the electorate — having been out of office, not having run in Minnesota for awhile — will be important," said Doug Loon, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.
Pawlenty has already been doing so quietly. For more than a year, he's been speaking to chambers of commerce and community groups all over Minnesota — replete with video and computer doodads — discussing how artificial intelligence is about to rapidly disrupt the American economy and the type of jobs that people work. Government will have to adapt to exploit opportunities while mitigating the downsides for Minnesotans in jobs that are destined to be automated, Pawlenty tells the crowds, who approach him afterward for handshakes and selfies.
"He was always forward thinking and trying to build our economy so that Minnesota can react to changes in the job market," said Tom Hanson, who was state Management and Budget director under Pawlenty and now works as a lobbyist. "And I think the benefit this time is, we don't have a decade of recessions to deal with, which would give him the opportunity to be more creative."
Hanson is referring to tough budget times that paralleled much of Pawlenty's tenure. His supporters say his ability to manage the state through two recessions without raising taxes is an accomplishment to run on.
His detractors say they will happily run against Pawlenty's record.
"We had a bridge collapse. Higher tuition, fees and property taxes, and he left a budget deficit behind," said State Auditor Rebecca Otto, a DFL candidate for governor. She finished second in last week's DFL caucus straw poll to U.S. Rep. Tim Walz.
Johnson warned Republicans about the DFL's expected barrage of attacks against Pawlenty over his most recent career, lobbying for the nation's largest banks as CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable. There, he sought tax cuts and regulatory relief, less than a decade after a massive bailout of the Wall Street banks, whose failed risk strategies contributed to a financial panic in 2008.
Pawlenty was paid more than $2.7 million in 2016, according IRS documents.
"Since he left, he's been a high-buck lobbyist," Otto said. "He was working for big corporate interests in D.C. He was in the swamp," she said, also adopting Trump's terminology.
"Leading Financial Services Roundtable gave Tim Pawlenty a much deeper perspective regarding job creation, the American economy, emerging technology and the need to invest in cybersecurity," said Brian McClung, a longtime adviser and former top aide. "Financial services is an important sector in our state, with nearly 200,000 hardworking Minnesotans directly employed in the industry. Only a petty partisan would complain about someone leaving a private sector job for public service."
McClung said if Pawlenty runs, he'll "focus on better preparing Minnesota's future workforce, reforming education, controlling government spending and creating more opportunities for Minnesotans."
Republican voters may have a more immediate concern than those policy goals: After eight years of Dayton, who raised taxes and increased spending, embraced both labor unions and the Affordable Care Act, they are desperate to win.
"People have seen that there's real things that happen and real differences between when you win and you have the governor's office, and when you don't," said David FitzSimmons, a GOP operative.
Josh Anderson, a GOP activist in southern Minnesota's First Congressional District, could sense it last week when Pawlenty announced he was leaving his job in Washington and considering a comeback attempt.
"There were nine people at our caucus. A little old lady said Tim Pawlenty might be running for governor," he recounted. "The whole mood of the room changed." Pawlenty wasn't on the ballot. Of the nine caucusgoers, eight went with "uncommitted," Anderson said. Overall, nearly 16 percent of Republican caucusgoers statewide said they remain uncommitted.
The other candidates remain largely unknown in his region, Anderson said. But not Pawlenty: "He built up a lot of goodwill in this neck of the woods."
J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042