Former governor Tim Pawlenty wasn’t much help to Mitt Romney in Minnesota’s GOP presidential straw poll last February, when Rick Santorum romped to victory in Pawlenty’s home state. Pawlenty exerted little influence over the staunch conservatives and evangelical Christians who dominated that primary race.
Yet some analysts believe Pawlenty could demonstrate a lot more pulling power among swing voters in Minnesota and elsewhere this fall, when Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, goes head to head with President Obama. Which may be one reason the affable Pawlenty now finds himself in the top tier of Republicans under consideration to be Romney’s vice presidential running mate.
After he finished a humiliating third in last summer’s Iowa straw poll and dropped out of the race, Pawlenty was one of the first GOP candidates to support Romney. He proved to be an articulate and loyal advocate throughout the roughest periods of the GOP primary season, and his easygoing manner and blue-collar family background were a useful contrast to Romney’s patrician pedigree.
“Pawlenty is a guy who has a winsome personality,” said Lawrence Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota. “He’s going to play well with the kind of political work that Romney is going to need from a vice president. This is not somebody you need to worry about or babysit. He’s a mature guy. He’s done a lifetime of campaigning, and that’s a very important function as well for a vice president.”
For sure, “exciting” or “compelling” are not terms used to describe Pawlenty, 51, the conservative governor of the North Star State from 2003 to 2011. “His problem during his failed 2012 campaign was that he was not an electrifying presence on the trail,” a Reuters’ piece noted a few months back.
But dedication and loyalty may count for a lot – and could end up canceling out those deficits. Today, Pawlenty serves as co-chair of the Romney campaign and has been hammering away on Obama and his economic record. And yet he says he’s not particularly interested in the VP slot.
“I’m assuming Mitt Romney is looking for someone who’s, quite frankly, boring,” political scientist Chris Ellis of Bucknell University told The Fiscal Times. “Especially after what happened to John McCain in 2008, when he tried to shake up the race in a crazy way [with Sarah Palin] and it didn’t work. Romney’s obviously in a much different position and I think he’s looking for someone who has a quiet, distinguished record of service and is really not going to overshadow him or rock the boat too much.”
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato’s “Crystal Ball” scorecard last week rated Pawlenty’s vice presidential prospects second only to those of Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. Sabato put Pawlenty ahead of such better-known GOP figures as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
Minnesota last went for a Republican presidential candidate in 1972, when Richard M. Nixon won election. But in 2010, Democrats barely held onto the governor’s seat, while Republicans took control of both chambers of the state legislature. While Minnesota looms as a political longshot for Romney, a surprise victory there could well put him over the top in a very tight race with Obama.
Ronald Reagan biographer Craig Shirley says that while Pawlenty would be someone conservatives would be comfortable with, “the best possible pick for Romney will be the person he’s most comfortable with.” He also notes that “the vice presidential choice is rarely helpful in the long term – but can be very damaging in the short term.” Either way, Pawlenty’s star seems to be rising.
“I remain committed to turning this country around, getting a Republican elected to the White House, and advancing the values we share in common and hold so dear," he said after he dropped out of the race for the White House. In September 2011, when he endorsed Romney, he told Fox News, "I believe he's going to be a transformational president for this country.” And Romney, at the time, said of Pawlenty, “Tim will be a trusted adviser as I move forward with my campaign. Tim has always been an advocate for lower taxes, reduced spending, and an environment where jobs can be created.”
The youngest of five children from a hockey-playing family, Pawlenty “brings to the table an interesting and politically useful life story,” notes The Atlantic. “He was first in his family to go to college, his father was a truck driver, and his mother died when he was 16.” Pawlenty has also said “the GOP can't be the party of ‘middle-aged white-guy CEOs’ – in other words,” added The Atlantic, “it can't be a party of all guys like Romney. And [he] promotes himself as a person who can comfortably drink a Miller High Life at a VFW hall with someone wearing a Carhartt jacket.”
Before serving as 39th governor of Minnesota, Pawlenty served in the state House of Representatives and was majority leader for two terms. Born in St. Paul, he earned a BA in political science and a JD from the University of Minnesota, worked early on as a labor law attorney, and was vice president of a software company. After settling with his wife, Mary, in the town of Eagan, south of St. Paul, Pawlenty joined the city's Planning Commission, and before age 30 was elected to the city council. He won a seat as a state representative in 1992 and was re-elected four times. In 1998, he was voted majority leader by the House GOP.
After eking out a narrow GOP primary win in 2002, Pawlenty won a three-way election for the governor’s seat and was then re-elected in 2006 by a hair – by a margin of only one percent. With a campaign platform that emphasized balancing the budget without raising taxes, Pawlenty wiped out the state’s budget deficit using spending cuts and borrowing heavily from earmarked funds. Though he did not raise income taxes, he did target increases in sales tax and user fees. He also cut health care spending to help balance the budget, and rejected federal funds related to the health care reform law.
“Pawlenty really was an extraordinary fiscal figure in challenging the status quo, challenging the existing budget process and framework,” said Jacobs, who holds the Walter F. and Joan Mondale chair for Political Studies at the University of Minnesota. “Usually, in budgeting, you get into incrementalism. Pawlenty wasn’t a baseline assumer. He’s a guy who really raised questions.”
During his 2007–2008 term, he served as chairman of the National Governors Association. Arguably, the darkest period of Pawlenty’s administration was the aftermath of a bridge collapse in the Twin Cities area in August 2007 that killed 13 people and raised questions about the culpability of the state government and the adequacy of maintenance of Minnesota’s infrastructure. But a report by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the I-35W Bridge collapsed because of an original design flaw dating back to the 1960s, as well as an “inadequate design review” by federal and state transportation officials during the design and approval phase.