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.”
Most importantly, the Minnesota electorate’s ornery streak manifests itself in strong third party candidacies. Pawlenty’s predecessor, Jesse Ventura, was an independent. In both of Pawlenty’s races an Independence Party candidate took a significant portion of the vote, with more coming from Pawlenty’s Democratic opponents.
Pawlenty never won a majority of Minnesotans. (He got 44 percent in 2002 and 47 percent, to Democrat Mike Hatch’s 46 percent, in 2006). “Both elections featured Independent candidates, which exit polls showed drew more votes from Democrats in close races,” says Jacobs. “I looked closely at the data and there’s no doubt that Independence Party candidates accounted for Pawlenty’s margin, particularly in his re-election.” Jacobs adds that Pawlenty also might have lost in 2006 had Hatch’s campaign not imploded in the final days of the campaign when Hatch’s running mate made a gaffe about Minnesota’s sacred ethanol, and Hatch being overly critical of her in subsequent interviews.
And the state’s demographics—only 5 percent black and 5 percent Latino—are hardly Californian. In 2008, a banner year for Democrats, Al Franken barely edged out the scandal plagued dweeb Norm Coleman for his Senate seat. So winning in Minnesota isn’t the achievement Pawlenty makes it out to be, especially when your wins come with an asterisk.
At any rate, what you want is voters to decide you are the most electable candidate on their own, not to explicitly try claim it yourself. The effective way of running as the most electable candidate is not to say so: remember how successful Joe Lieberman’s self-introduction in 2004 that he hailed from “the electable wing of the Democratic Party” was? Instead, you prove your electability by crafting a message that appeals to moderates and independents, as Barack Obama did in 2008.
Paradoxically, this is precisely the opposite of Pawlenty’s strategy. While Jon Huntsman appeals to independents and pundits with his restrained positions and rhetoric, Pawlenty is running to the right on every issue. He has completely abandoned and abjectly apologized for his support for cap-and-trade and come out for an aggressively neoconservative foreign policy.
In fact, Pawlenty’s rightward shift started while he was still in the Governor’s Mansion. As Representative Davnie recalls, he met with Pawlenty in 2009 to request his support for a bill to outlaw school bullying. Pawlenty told Davnie what shape the bill would have to take to win his support, and Davnie accommodated him. “I did that,” says Davnie. “I built a broad coalition; it passed both Houses with strong bi-partisan votes, and he vetoed it because he was hearing from the right wing that he shouldn’t sign it because it would protect gay and lesbian students.” The bill would have protected other students as well: advocates for students with disabilities were among its most vocal supporters.
Davnie says Pawlenty abandoned school children being victimized by bullies because he was preparing for his presidential run. “It has to do with him moving to the right to run for president,” says Davnie. “He vetoed it even though it was in many ways it was the bill he asked for.”
But Pawlenty is clearly convinced that he doesn’t need to be substantively moderate, just to disguise the same Republican policies with an affable, ostentatiously homespun demeanor. After all, it worked for George W. Bush.