When Tim Pawlenty agreed to run for his old job, many Republicans greeted him as a savior.
The former two-term governor of Minnesota who had run for president and cultivated a national donor base was seen as the ideal standard-bearer for a party that has Democrats on the ropes in a traditionally blue state that’s emerged as a battleground in this year’s midterms.
Two months later, Pawlenty isn’t quite getting a cakewalk.
His decision to bypass last week’s state party convention resulted in an endorsement for his rival, Hennepin County Commissioner (and 2014 gubernatorial nominee) Jeff Johnson. In skipping the event, Pawlenty acknowledged Johnson might have an advantage with the party insiders who voted on the endorsement, and he spared himself the embarrassment that could come from someone of his stature barely winning or — worse for Pawlenty — losing it.
Pawlenty is still considered the frontrunner in the August primary. But things are getting messy and awkward. An emboldened Johnson, who has been emphasizing Pawlenty’s post-gubernatorial days as a financial services lobbyist in Washington, is now calling on him to withdraw from the race. And Jennifer Carnahan, the Minnesota Republican chair who in April bragged about the “pay-attention factor” Pawlenty would bring to the November ticket, now must spend state party money on Johnson and share data with his campaign because of the endorsement.
Most notably, a big investment from the Republican Governors Association could be in jeopardy: One national Republican experienced in gubernatorial campaigns told BuzzFeed News that the RGA is likely to cancel its $2.3 million reservation for fall airtime in Minnesota if Johnson wins the nomination. (The ad buy was announced soon after Pawlenty declared his candidacy.)
“The endorsement does matter, because the thousands of people that showed up — those are the people who go out and work for the candidates of the party,” Carnahan said this week. “We were certainly disappointed that the former governor decided to bypass that.”
Greater chaos on the other side, where the field for governor is an even bigger scramble after last week’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party convention, is a comfort to some Republicans. But Johnson also sees it as an opportunity to apply pressure to Pawlenty and his backers.
“The DFL is in complete disarray and grassroots Republicans are united around a candidate who can appeal to every faction of the party, including the new voters Trump brought out in 2016,” Johnson said in a Tuesday statement. “We can spend the entire summer presenting a united front against the Democrats, or Tim Pawlenty can force a primary, divide the party even further than he already has, and greatly weaken our chance of winning in November. If this is really about winning and not about one person, Tim will look at the big picture and step aside.”
Pawlenty’s campaign did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ requests for comment. In an interview with Minnesota radio station WCCO, the former governor laughed off Johnson’s call to withdraw.
"Jeff’s a good guy,” Pawlenty said, “but I don’t think he’s in a position to win either the primary or the general election, and we need a strong candidate on the Republican side. … I'm not trying to get into a big intra-party fight, because the day after the primary we’re going to have to unite, and that’s going to be hard to do if everybody’s whacking on each other.”