Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has made his putative success in a bastion of liberalism the primary rationale for his candidacy. As he told Iowa voters in a typical stump speech:
“Every Republican candidate is going to come through a room like this and talk to a group like this and they’re basically going to say the same thing…. The question for you is who can do it, who has the fortitude to do it, and who will sell in blue places and purple places. Everybody’s going to say, ‘I’m the one who can get the independents in the end. I’m the one who can get the conservative Democrats.’ But, I’m the one who actually did it.”
And, as the Wall Street Journal reports, Pawlenty loves to talk about how he won office and took on Democrats on their home turf in “liberal Minnesota.” As he proclaims in one ad, “In a liberal state, I reduced spending in real terms, for the first time."
Among all the claims by Republican presidential candidates—which often range from mendacious to downright delusional—Pawlenty’s narrative of success in a bastion of liberalism is hardly the most absurd. “There’s some truth to [Pawlenty’s campaign claims],” says Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. “Some of his policies were not widely supported, but he has a winsome personality that calmed independent or Democratic voters. His approval ratings were generally over 50 percent.” Jacobs attributes this to Pawlenty’s working-class affectations. “It’s playing hockey, the mullet haircut. People who really disagreed with him on policy issues were not necessarily fired up about it.” (Among Pawlenty’s homey affectations when he was majority leader in the state legislature was using his official last word on budget bills to quote rock lyrics.)
But Pawlenty’s assertion that he can sell plutocratic policies to the public because he won over Democrats and independents in Minnesota doesn’t withstand close scrutiny. It turns out that Pawlenty was never very politically successful, that Minnesota isn’t really all that liberal, and that Pawlenty has flip-flopped on his signature moderate stances.
Minnesota’s politics are actually more populist than liberal. In the “Democratic Farmer-Labor Party” that has meant a commitment to social justice, articulated by such liberal lions as Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone. But among Republicans that translates to a fiery religious social conservatism, epitomized by Representative Michele Bachmann. “Culturally we’ve always been a pretty conservative state,” says Representative Jim Davnie, a Democratic Minnesota state representative. “There’s long been deep divides between the Twin Cities metro area that leans Democratic and some rural areas that lean Republican. There’s a mythology around Minnesota’s liberalism, but I don’t know that it’s as true as the mythology will tell you.”