ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Long ago, in a seemingly distant political universe, Tim Pawlenty was a fresh-faced Republican star with blue-collar appeal and presidential prospects.
Now The former Minnesota governor is a high-powered banking lobbyist, and he's eyeing a climb back onto the national stage.
An unexpected Senate election next year, created by Democrat Al Franken's resignation after sexual harassment allegations, has created the opening. Some GOP power players are looking expectantly at Pawlenty as their best chance to take a Senate seat in a Democratic-leaning state with an unorthodox streak. A comeback bid could test whether a mild-mannered, establishment Republican and once-vocal critic of President Donald Trump fits into the Trump-era GOP.
“Ideology is going to trump a lot of other things, always, in a Republican convention. But they also are looking for someone who has the fire in the belly,” Minnesota Republican operative Annette Meeks said. “I think Republicans are looking at it like this: We've got to win.”
Pawlenty, 57, has said he is “reflecting” on the Senate race, 11 years since he last ran in Minnesota and six years since his short-lived presidential campaign fizzled. Since then, he's split his time between Washington, heading the financial industry's top lobbying group, and his home in Eagan, Minnesota.
While publicly insisting he's “politically retired,” he had already been weighing a return to public office, including the governorship next year or the Senate in 2020, former Minnesota House Speaker Steve Sviggum said.
“The governor has that feeling in his stomach, that feeling in his gut about further public service,” Sviggum said, recalling a recent lunch with Pawlenty.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton last week appointed Democratic Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to fill Franken's seat until a special election next November. Republican state Sen. Karin Housley, a real estate agent and wife of an NHL hockey coach, announced Tuesday that she was running. No Democrats have immediately stepped forward to challenge Smith.
Pawlenty, the Republican convert from a Democratic family in blue-collar south St. Paul, sought to appeal in his 2012 presidential bid to his party's Sam's Club — not country club — voters.
But he was quickly overshadowed in the race by then-Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann. He also awkwardly balked during a Republican debate, failing to confront Mitt Romney face-to-face over the health care law he enacted in Massachusetts, even though he had telegraphed a plan to do so.
Pawlenty quit the race six months before the Iowa caucuses, and Romney went on to be the nominee.
Today, the “embarrassment” of Franken requires Pawlenty's seriousness, said Republican former Sen. Norm Coleman, whom Franken narrowly beat in 2008.
“He's a south St. Paul guy, whose character no one has ever questioned,” said Coleman, who has discussed the race with Pawlenty.
Last fall, Pawlenty began re-establishing his Minnesota profile, speaking to Twin Cities-area chambers of commerce about the ongoing technical revolution.
As CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable, Pawlenty has had a hand in federal policy including tax legislation that passed the GOP-controlled Congress. The job also has offered him connections with potential donors, invaluable in an election less than a year away.
“There will be a very strong outpouring of support from Republican donors for Gov. Pawlenty if he runs for the Senate,” said Wayne Berman, the finance chairman for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's 2016 Republican presidential campaign.
The surprise Minnesota race is a gift for Republicans, whose two-seat Senate majority was halved by Alabama Democrat Doug Jones’ win in last week's special election. It's a new headache for Democrats, who already faced defending 23 seats next year, including 10 in states Trump carried.
Pawlenty would elevate the race to a top target and trigger involvement from Senate Leadership Fund, the political group associated with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, group president Steven Law said.
McConnell's group, allowed to raise unlimited amounts, is on pace to match the $116 million it raised in 2016, Law said.
Such backing would hardly endear Pawlenty to his party's pro-Trump wing.
Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon has pledged to find primary challengers for Republican senators facing re-election in 2018 who publicly broke with Trump during the 2016 campaign.
Pawlenty renounced Trump after the release of the 2005 “Access Hollywood” video that featured Trump asserting that fame enabled him to grope and make sexual advances toward women.
“Although I'd hoped he could have risen to the occasion, it's clear Trump is unwilling or unable to demonstrate even the most basic level of discipline, character and judgment necessary to lead our great nation,” Pawlenty said in October 2016.
Minnesota is hardly a Trump hotbed. Rubio won Minnesota's presidential caucuses last year, handing Trump a rare primary defeat. But the state is prone to political surprises. Trump came within two percentage points of carrying Minnesota, once a bastion of liberalism.
If the White House in 2012 “wasn't his time,” the Senate in 2018 is a timely second chance, Coleman said.
Simply put, Coleman said: “He's the best choice we have for winning back the seat.”
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