In new race for old seat, ex-Minn. governor Tim Pawlenty waffles on Trump
BABBITT, Minn. - President Donald Trump was due in a few days, but Tim Pawlenty was not ready to say if he would share the stage in Duluth on Wednesday with his party's leader.
He's never been to a Trump rally. Does he even want to go? He was noncommittal.
"Yeah, I've been to a lot of these rallies over the years, and they're always fun and interesting," he said in an interview a few days ago, with the agreeability that defined his two terms as governor and his short-lived 2012 presidential campaign.
Pawlenty is hoping to revive his political career this year with a triumphant return to the Minnesota statehouse. But like many Republican veterans, he is struggling to navigate a party that has been completely transformed since the last time he hit the campaign trail, and he is hoping that his brand of electoral magic still works.
When Pawlenty left office eight years ago and began running for president, he was a "Sam's Club" Republican, a wholesome representation of the Midwest. The signature moment of his short-lived presidential campaign came when he was ridiculed for his reluctance to attack one of his rivals, Mitt Romney.
Today, the party whose favor he's seeking prefers its politicians to speak in strong terms, and to embrace the populist agenda of a bombastic president. And its voters demand complete loyalty to Trump, which most candidates have accommodated by flipping their positions or giving the president a pass for uncivil behavior, such as bragging on video about groping women.
Pawlenty has declined to go that far, both by dint of personality and political need. At 57, he is facing a primary challenge from the party's pro-Trump wing, and also a general election in a closely divided state whose politics demand balance. His approach has been to embrace Trump enough to placate him and his supporters, but not so much that he scares away the voters who don't like the president.
In 2016 Pawlenty, then running a Wall Street lobbying group based in Washington, D.C., called Trump "unfit" and "unhinged" after the release of the Access Hollywood video. But he also said he voted for Trump - an absentee vote cast before the video came out in late October.
"Like most Republicans, and many other people, I agree with what he's trying to do, many, if not all, of his policy initiatives," Pawlenty said in an interview last week in Hutchinson, a small town about an hour west of Minneapolis where he was speaking to a group of local business leaders. "Not all of them, but many of them. But I don't agree with his behavior in all instances, or his language. And that's where most people in the Republican Party have landed."
Not Boni Bieniek, 62, a former Democrat who is now an avid Trump fan and chairwoman of the Republican Party of Lake County, on the north shore of Lake Superior.
"I don't like Tim Pawlenty," Bieniek said. "We expected things from Democrats that they didn't do. We expected things from Republicans that they were going to do that they didn't do. And it becomes a whitewash, just a blend - no differentiating between the two parties."
Persuading Republicans who love Trump to nominate him in the Aug. 14 primary is only the first of Pawlenty's challenges this year. The second comes in the general election, when he must also appeal to moderates and independents to win. Because of the electoral power and increasingly liberal lean of the Twin Cities and their suburbs, Pawlenty can't win the state with Republicans alone.
Bieniek is supporting Pawlenty's GOP opponent, Jeff Johnson, a Hennepin County, Minnesota, commissioner who has fallen short in two prior statewide campaigns. Johnson won the party's nomination for governor at a convention at the beginning of June that Pawlenty chose to skip.
The party nomination does not always predict a primary win; Johnson is not well known, and he raised only $169,000 to Pawlenty's $1.7 million this year through the end of May, according to finance reports. But he is embracing Trump in a way Pawlenty is not, and he is doing his best to encourage the president to weigh in on his behalf.
Trump will have a chance to pick a side on Wednesday, when he is scheduled to appear in Duluth with Pete Stauber, a 52-year-old local business owner and retired police officer who is running for Congress. Democrat Rick Nolan is leaving the seat to run for lieutenant governor, and Republicans view it as one of their top pickup opportunities.
In the area Trump will visit, the major industry is iron mining, and residents cheer the president's threats of a trade war with China over steel. Trump enjoys soaring popularity across Minnesota's rural and industrial northern tier.
The Iron Range used to be solidly Democratic territory, in part because of the historic sway of the mining unions. Not anymore; Trump's popularity here is one major reason he came within less than two points of winning the state.
"I like everything about him," said Jan Nicholas, 78, of Babbitt, a tiny Iron Range crossroads about two hours north of Duluth with a grocery store, a lumber yard and a giant monument of iron ore along Central Boulevard.
"Sometimes I get a little ticked when he goes on and on and on," she said of Trump. "But he has made a change in the world. I think he's a godsend."
Nicholas, whose late husband was a miner for 30 years, spent Saturday at a local parade in honor of Peter Mitchell, a 19th-century miner credited with discovering taconite, a type of iron ore, in the surrounding hills.
Like other Babbitt residents huddled in a drizzle under party tents, drinking beer from plastic cups and watching a parade of politicians and giant mining machines, Nicholas said she appreciated Trump's promise to revive manufacturing in the United States.
She resents "tree-huggers" and what she sees as the overregulation of mining and fishing in the nearby wilderness. She wants job growth in a sparse town where the average high school graduating class size has fallen from about 150 in the mid-1980s, when her daughter Renee graduated, to about 20 today.
If Trump were to say something nice about Johnson on Wednesday, "then I'd vote for him," she said of Pawlenty's opponent.
Many of Pawlenty's defenders, including a number of local party leaders, side with him because they see him as better able to beat a Democrat in the fall.
Ted Lovdahl, the GOP chairman in the congressional district the president will visit, is a huge Trump fan. But he is also unapologetic about his preference for Pawlenty - even though he was not supposed to admit it because Johnson had earned the official GOP backing.
"I want to win in November, and Tim is the one who can win," said Lovdahl, a beef cattle farmer and logger who lives in Effie, Minnesota, a town of about 100 people two hours northeast of Duluth. "We have to win."
Pawlenty will not easily replicate Trump's performance in northern Minnesota. Nor is it a given that he will repeat his own statewide successes when he ran for governor in 2002 and 2006.
In those days, Pawlenty performed well in the suburbs - winning his own Dakota County, southeast of the Twin Cities, by 21 points in 2002. In 2016, that county's mix of inner and outer suburbs swung dramatically the other way, delivering Hillary Clinton a four-point victory.
That challenge helps explain much of Pawlenty's pragmatic message this year - to cut taxes but increase school funding, particularly vocational education, and to lower health costs.
It also helps explain why Pawlenty's opponents, in both parties, are decrying the education cuts he oversaw as governor a decade ago - and criticizing his six-year stint as chief executive of the Financial Services Roundtable, a major lobbying organization for banks, which paid Pawlenty $2.7 million in 2016, according to Internal Revenue Service filings.
Pawlenty is following a more conservative GOP playbook on the issue of immigration, blaming "political correctness" for what he contends is the proliferation of undocumented immigrants receiving public benefits. On health care, his pitch is more nuanced; he promises to lower costs for consumers with "market-based solutions" and a "shared savings model" but offers few other details.
Pawlenty's wiggle with Trump may feel familiar to voters who watched him struggle to take a stand on health care during his short presidential campaign in 2012. Ahead of a GOP presidential debate in New Hampshire in 2011, Pawlenty made headlines by accusing the eventual Republican nominee, Romney, of supporting "ObamneyCare" - an attempt to conflate the health-care plan Romney pushed as governor of Massachusetts with then-President Obama's Affordable Care Act.
But during the debate, Pawlenty demurred when asked to explain the term that he had used just that morning in a Fox News interview. His performance that night earned him a public rebuke from a viewer who was still in the early stages of contemplating his own presidential plans.
"Now, the problem with Pawlenty, he's trying to be a tough guy," Trump said on "Fox & Friends" the next morning. "I see his clips today on your show; he's trying to be a tough guy, but he's not. You know, you can't be something that you're not, but hey, he's trying."
When he ran for governor in the 2000s, Pawlenty talked about his roots in nearby South St. Paul, Minnesota: the meatpacking industry that used to drive the economy, his father's job as a truck driver, the fact that he was the first in his family to attend college. The power of that biography may have been diluted by his tenure as CEO, and it could fade further if the election becomes a referendum on Trump.
So far, many voters say it's simply too soon to know whom they'll support.
"I still like Tim Pawlenty," Republican Paul Welsh, 76, a retired pilot for the Air Force and American Airlines, said while he was picking up a coffee on Sunday in Apple Valley, a Dakota County community with miles-long stretches of suburban shopping and the ever-present sound of jetliners landing at the nearby Minneapolis airport.
"But this campaign in Minnesota hasn't really taken shape yet."
Jared Barker, a baggage handler for Delta Air Lines and lifelong Republican working on his laptop at the same coffee shop, used to like what he described as Pawlenty's libertarianism and opposition to "big spending." Now, given Pawlenty's work on behalf of banks and his embrace of Trump, he's less sure.
"He speaks in a soft manner. He comes across as a normal guy," Barker said. "But at the same time, he seems above it all. To me, he's a career politician."