Minnesota GOP governor primary tests Pawlenty's comeback bid

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Seven years after his presidential aspirations fizzled, Tim Pawlenty is hoping to regain his winning touch and restart his political career in a familiar spot: Minnesota's Republican primary for governor.

The former two-term governor's name is the biggest in both parties in the wide-open and high-stakes race for the state's top job. Tuesday's primary will determine which of three Democrats and two Republicans succeed outgoing Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

The race not only gives Pawlenty a shot at redemption but also could be a chance for Republicans to seize full control of Minnesota's traditionally blue state government. Unless Democrats recapture the state House — a tall order — a victory in the governor's race would be the party's only blockade against GOP-backed policies that already rule most of the Upper Midwest.

The primaries for governor were just one piece of a stacked election that also included races for U.S. Senate, several competitive congressional matchups and a rare open race for the attorney general seat that Swanson was vacating to run for governor. Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison was leaving Congress to try for that seat, but his candidacy was hit over the weekend by an allegation from an ex-girlfriend that he physically abused her. Ellison denied the charge.

In the gubernatorial race, Democrats treated Pawlenty as their November opponent even as they tried to figure out their own candidate. He was the most frequent target in campaign ads and stump speeches from southern Minnesota's U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, state Rep. Erin Murphy and Attorney General Lori Swanson. And the liberal outside political organization Alliance for a Better Minnesota spent months and millions of dollars on attack ads to remind voters of the $6.1 billion deficit Pawlenty handed Dayton in 2011.

After Pawlenty quit the 2012 presidential race, he declared himself retired from politics and moved on to a lobbying job in Washington. But in April, after months of flirting with a run, he jumped into the governor's race . His opponent: Jeff Johnson, the party's 2014 nominee and loser to Dayton.

Pawlenty's resume quickly cleared most other GOP hopefuls from the race, and big money immediately flowed his way from such national groups as the Republican Governors Association, which quickly reserved $2.3 million in ad buys.

But the self-described "Sam's Club Republican" didn't have an easy time reintegrating himself in a party that has changed drastically since he left office in 2011. He quickly abandoned a quest for the party's support, which went to Johnson.

He also struggled to live down his blistering critique of President Donald Trump in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election, when he called then-candidate Trump "unhinged and unfit for the presidency." He has since said he still voted for Trump and supports the president's agenda.

Johnson gleefully circulated those comments, calling himself the true conservative and branding Pawlenty part of the "status quo." In one debate , Pawlenty and Johnson sparred for several minutes over who had insulted the president worse, with Pawlenty reminding radio listeners that Johnson had once referred to Trump as "a jackass."

"I supported him," Johnson said in response. "You told people not to vote for him."

Longtime Republican political operative Gregg Peppin said it remains to be seen whether GOP voters want Pawlenty back, noting that unlike Terry Branstad — the former Iowa governor who left office for more than a decade but stayed in Iowa before seeking his old job — Pawlenty sought work elsewhere. He spent more than five years working for the Financial Services Roundtable in Washington.

"I don't know if voters will penalize him for that or not," said Peppin, who worked on Johnson's 2014 campaign but isn't working for either candidate this year.

But Pawlenty was the last Republican to win statewide in Minnesota when he won his second term in 2006. And Johnson couldn't keep up with weeks of attack ads statewide branding him a phony conservative who supported Dayton's push to expand the state sales tax and supported a property tax increase as a Hennepin County commissioner.

While countering Pawlenty was a unifying theme for the Democrats, their primary turned ugly in the closing days. Swanson, who entered the race late after three terms as attorney general, attacked Walz last week with an ad dubbing him "No-Show Walz" for missing more than 60 percent of votes in Congress this year.

Walz admitted it's a fair figure and that he's struggled to balance his congressional duties with campaign and personal life, but accused Swanson of taking the low road with name-calling.

"We get plenty of that from the White House right now," he said during a Minnesota Public Radio News debate on Friday.

Walz portrayed his background — rural Minnesota roots, former teacher, National Guard veteran — as making him best suited to reverse a trend of Democrats struggling away from state's urban core.

Murphy, a former nurse and longtime state lawmaker, hoped to energize loyal Democratic voters with her endorsement from both the party and Dayton. Swanson touted her electoral success as the party's highest vote-getter during three terms and her work as attorney general.

But Swanson came under scrutiny in the final week after a former staffer in her office accused her of pressuring employees to help with her political ambitions. D'Andre Norman told The Intercept he spent years rounding up young staffers to volunteer on Swanson's behalf at political conventions before he was fired in 2014 — an allegation that Swanson called a lie.

It wasn't the first blow to Swanson's campaign. She stood by her running mate , Rep. Rick Nolan, after Nolan acknowledged mishandling an allegation of sexual harassment against an aide in his congressional office.

|

..