Thursday, June 11, 2009

After Pawlenty, a Deluge

When Republican Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty announced he would not run for a third term a few days ago, it unleashed a torrent of announcements from political wannabes in both major parties, and a few in the significant third party in the state, the Independence Party (IP).

Pawlenty had been elected twice as governor with a plurality, defeating his DFL opponents because there was a serious IP candidate in the field. In 1998, in fact, the IP nominee Jesse Ventura had won the governorship in an historic upset.

Over time, lacking his party’s control eventually of both houses of the state legislature, the conservative but cautious Pawlenty, a former GOP house majority leader, became more and more assertive. After agreeing to increased “fees” to balance the state budget in a previous legislative session, and then being accused of raising taxes by some in his conservative base, Pawlenty became adamant about not raising taxes, even as the state fell into the national recession. In 2008 Pawlenty received considerable national attention when he became a finalist for John McCain’s choice for vice president, and although he lost to Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, he had clearly been bitten by the national bug.

In the session recently concluded, Pawlenty pulled off the most significant political maneuver of his two terms. Thinking they had the GOP governor cornered, DFL legislative leaders played political chicken going up to the final hours of the session and expected Pawlenty to cave in on raising revenues. Instead, the governor shocked the DFL and the state by invoking often little-used powers of line item veto and unallotment. Instead of caving in, or being forced to call an unpopular special session, Pawlenty took on the responsibility of balancing the state budget, a constitutional requirement, entirely by himself. His current term ends in January, 2011, and although the move had made his election to an unprecedented third four-year term possible (if not likely), Pawlenty soon afterwards withdrew from the 2010 race.

He now presumably will concentrate on finishing out his term, and on putting together a national presidential campaign for 2012.

Some DFLers, faced with Pawlenty’s popularity, had been holding back a decision to run for governor. No serious Republicans were reportedly considering running against him. But now with the incumbent out of the race, there is a deluge of well-known candidates.

Already announced or virtually announced on the DFL side are speaker of the state house Margaret Kelliher, former U.S. senator Mark Dayton, state legislator Paul Thissen, former state legislator Matt Entenza, state representative Tom Bakk, Ramsey County attorney Susan Gaertner, former state senator Steve Kelley, state senator and 1994 DFL nominee John Marty, and state Senator Tarryl Clark. Mayors R.T. Rybak of Minneapolis and Chris Coleman of St. Paul are running for re-election this year, so cannot announce formally for governor until after the election, but both are expected to run. State legislator Steve Simon has also frequently been mentioned for higher office.

On the Republican side, announced or presumed candidates include House Minority leader Marty Seifer, GOP national committeeman and businessman Brian Sullivan, state representative Laura Brod, former state house speaker Steve Sviggum, businessman Mike Vekich, state representative Paul Kohls, former state auditor Pat Anderson, former state legislator Charlie Weaver, state senator Geoff Michel, state senator David Hann, and state senate leader David Senjem. Incumbent congresswoman Michele Bachmann has been mentioned as a possible candidate, but has indicated she is running for re-election from the 6th District. U.S. Senator Norm Coleman, in the closing days of his recount dispute over the 2008 election, has also been suggested, but it is unlikely at the present time that he would even consider the race. An intriguing dark horse candidate, who has not indicated publicly any interest in running for governor, would be Ben Whitney who has just retired as U.S. ambassador to Norway. Whitney, a successful businessman, ran the Minnesota campaign for Bush-Cheney in 2004.

Initially the favorite for the DFL endorsement and nomination, speaker Margaret Kelliher was hurt by the end of the session rout of the DFL by the governor, but she remains as a formidable candidate. Now leading in all the polls, admittedly primarily the result of name recognition, is Mark Dayton, Some observers dismiss Dayton as a political has-been, but this also happened in 2000 when he came from behind to handily defeat the DFL-endorsed candidate for U.S. senate in the primary and went on to an easy victory in the general election. Dayton is remembered fondly by senior citizens for his efforts on their behalf while a senator, and if no other candidate emerges strongly, he could end up the DFL nominee. Matt Entenza is married to the CEO of United Health and presumably has unlimited funds for the campaign. He presumably will work aggressively to block an endorsement, and will run in the primary even if someone is endorsed, as may Dayton. The dark horse in the race may be legislator Paul Thissen who represents a Minneapolis/suburban district, and is one of the most highly regarded of the young DFL legislators in the state. With such a crowded field, a number of the younger DFL activists could coalesce around his candidacy.

There is no frontrunner for the GOP nomination either. National committeeman Brian Sullivan almost beat Pawlenty in 2002 for the GOP endorsement, and continues to be active in conservative circles, but he reportedly will not have the support of former GOP congressman Vin Weber this time. (Weber and his group supported Sullivan strongly in 2002.) Bachmann, if she ran, could conceivably win party endorsement, but would almost certainly lose in November if she were nominated as well. Pat Anderson will be seeking the support of the Ron Paul faction of the GOP, but might be unable to assemble a broad base of support necessary to win election.

There are two interesting dark horse candidates for the GOP nomination. One is businessman Mike Vekich, an accountant and successful entrepreneur. He is a political anomaly because he is a Republican from the Iron Range. He has been one of Governor Pawlenty’s go-to guys in recent years, successfully running MNSCU, the state college system, among other projects. Presumably, he could raise the funds necessary for the race, but he is mostly unknown to state voters, and will have to find a way in a few short months to stand out from the crowd of other candidates.

The other dark horse has so far not publicly indicated he is even considering the race for governor. Ben Whitney is the son of one of the state’s most prominent moderate Republican figures, Wheelock Whitney (who himself was the 1986 GOP nominee for governor), and his great, great uncle (by marriage) was one of the state’s most successful 19th century governors, John Pillsbury. Ben Whitney built a strong organization of young GOP activists when he ran the Minnesota GOP presidential campaign in 2004, and a great many of these activists would presumably be attracted to his campaign. Most importantly, although he is pro-life, Whitney clearly has appeal to moderates in the party, and independents, many of whom abandoned the GOP in 2006 and 2008, and could be unifying figure for a party now badly split into factions.

The Independence Party has played spoiler to the DFL for more than 20 years, not only in the race for governor, but probably in the 2008 senate race as well. In 2010, candidates of the prominence of Tim Penny, Peter Hutchinson or Jesse Ventura won’t likely be in the race, but the party will have a candidate, and its nominee will probably receive between 2-5% of the general election vote, perhaps once again enough to make the difference.

It is important to stress, however, that the gubernatorial campaign is only beginning. Other candidates, not mentioned above, could enter and change the chemistry of the race. Some of those mentioned will choose not to run. The economy, state and national, will play a role not yet evident more than a year away form election day.

The very large number of prominent candidates for governor in both parties is probably unprecedented. This is a sign of how serious this race is being taken, and how much is at stake politically for the party whose nominee will occupy the governor’s residence in the next four turbulent years.

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