The Wall Street Journal

  • JULY 8, 2011

Beyond Minnesota Nice

Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty brags that as governor he stared down Democrats on taxes and spending, but can he sell it to conservative voters?


  • Ask Mitt Romney to opine about his time managing a blue state, and the former Massachusetts governor will mostly take a pass. Ask Tim Pawlenty about his recent tenure governing liberal Minnesota, and you could be listening for hours.

If Mr. Pawlenty sees a path to the Republican presidential nomination, it’s increasingly through the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Running in a highly conservative primary as the former head of a proudly liberal state—one perpetually beset by economic woes—certainly holds its downsides. But Mr. Pawlenty isn’t shying away from that past. He’s intent on turning his own feisty leadership of Minnesota into his main selling point for the nomination.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty


This has become all the more clear this past week, as the Minnesota government shut down over a budget impasse. The focus instantly turned to Mr. Pawlenty, highlighting the risks his time as governor (which ended earlier this year) holds for his run.

Conservative critics jumped to suggest the shutdown shows Mr. Pawlenty is far from the fiscal hawk he claims to be—that he instead papered over Minnesota’s budget woes. Democrats piled on, with Walter Mondale emerging to lay the entire “mess” of a shutdown at Mr. Pawlenty’s feet. All this is the last way Mr. Pawlenty wants to be defined to primary voters who are only now becoming familiar with candidates.

And Mr. Pawlenty’s response? Far from going on defense, this week he aired a spot on Iowa television feting . . . the Minnesota shutdown. To be precise, the ad is highlighting a 2005 Minnesota shutdown, bragging that it happened because Mr. Pawlenty refused “to accept Democrats’ massive tax and spending plans.” The ad also references a 2004 transit strike (caused by a fight over pension cuts), in which Mr. Pawlenty “refused to cave in to government unions.” The ad’s moderator notes that both situations ended with one result: “Pawlenty won.”

The candidate is eagerly talking about the current shutdown, contrasting Minnesota Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s calls for more spending (the immediate cause of the state’s deficit) with his own final budget fight with a Democratic legislature. He’s telling audiences that he refused Democratic spending demands and vetoed Democratic tax proposals. He’s highlighting his use of a little-used tool called “unallotment,” which allowed him to unilaterally cut $736 million from the budget—much to Democratic fury. “In a liberal state, I reduced spending in real terms, for the first time,” says the candidate in one ad.

Pawlenty as Fighter. Pawlenty Refusing to Roll for Democrats. Minnesota—goes the thinking—is T-Paw’s big opening to define his candidacy. All the more so in the context of Washington’s white-hot debt-limit talks. Conservative primary voters are looking for Republicans to hold the line against the president’s spending and taxes, and Mr. Pawlenty’s pitch is that he’s been there, done that. And if, along the way, he can use this to replace his reputation as a perfectly “nice guy” with that of a candidate with the fight to take on Obama, all the better.

The Pawlenty team no doubt also sees this as an opportunity to draw contrasts within the GOP field. Mr. Romney is claiming frontrunner status, and the primary fight is increasingly about which candidate emerges to challenge him. Mr. Pawlenty’s stance—that he held the line against Democratic demands—is one way to sharpen his distinctions with Mr. Romney, whose own grand bargains with his state’s Democrats led to programs like RomneyCare. Or with Jon Huntsman, who despite being governor of a deep-red state with a Republican legislature, managed at one point to preside over a 35% state spending increase over a two-year period.

Still, Mr. Pawlenty has been playing off variations of the tough-guy-from-a-purple-state theme since he first started contemplating a run, and he has yet to get traction. The RealClearPolitics average of polls has him pulling 4.5% of voters—significantly less than Republicans who haven’t even declared. This helps explain why the Pawlenty team is embracing, not running from, the Minnesota shutdown. They are happy for the headlines.

One question, too, is how all the current governor candidates fare in the face of a red-state opponent like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who can boast a decent budget record and other conservative tick-offs like tort reform. Primary voters are drawn to accomplishments, and Mr. Pawlenty can hardly brag that he turned Minnesota into a laboratory for conservative ideas. There is, of course, the argument that it is far more impressive to push spending and tax cuts and pension reform through a liberal state than it is through a conservative one—and Mr. Pawlenty is making it. But “look what I did given what I had to work with” may prove a harder sell than “look what I did.”

Mr. Pawlenty’s bet is that he can sell it. And that means GOP primary voters are going to be hearing a lot more—not less—about Minnesota as this race goes on.

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