Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty stole the spotlight from Republican candidates in the governor’s race Tuesday, Feb. 6, hours before party loyalists gather to pick their favorite governor candidate in a straw poll.
The two-term Republican governor made a surprise announcement Tuesday morning that he will leave the Financial
Services Roundtable next month. As leader of the Washington-based group, Pawlenty has been spokesman and lobbyist for financial services companies.
The announcement could lead to a Pawlenty governor candidacy after he meets with potential funders and other Republicans next week.
Pawlenty has delivered several Minnesota speeches in the past couple of months, sounding much like a candidate but always declaring he is “politically retired.” Since leaving the governor’s office seven years ago, he ran for president and after dropping out of that race he got the Washington job with the financial industry.
Before the Pawlenty announcement, two former state representatives running for governor had been the center of Republican attention on precinct caucus day.
The campaign of Keith Downey, a former GOP state chairman and state representative, sent party members an email that started: “It’s time we talk about it. Jeff Johnson has run statewide twice and lost,” with “twice and lost” in boldface type.
On Tuesday morning, Johnson responded in his own email, saying that Republicans must win in November and the only way to do that is to unite.
Suburbanites Downey and Johnson, a former state lawmaker and Hennepin County commissioner, were to be joined on the Republican ballot by Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens and teacher Phillip Parrish of Kenyon.
The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party ballot included U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, state Rep. Paul Thissen, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, state Rep. Erin Murphy, state Rep. Tina Liebling and former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.
The straw poll was atop the agenda in 4,000 precincts around the state. Caucus attendees also were to pick local party leaders and delegates for conventions that will endorse candidates later this year.
No poll was planned for U.S. Senate candidates, in either race that will be on the November ballot. One race will decide who will fill out the final two years of Al Franken’s term; he resigned last month after several sexual misconduct allegations surfaced.
In an email, Downey’s campaign reminded Republican activists that Johnson lost an attorney general race in 2006 and a governor campaign four years ago.
“If you want to win the governor’s race, then get out and vote for Keith … at the Republican precinct caucuses,” the email said.
Johnson responded: “Unfortunately, one of my opponents — Keith Downey — has turned almost solely to attacks against me in the desperate hope of scoring higher in the caucus straw poll tonight. I won’t respond in kind (though it would be pretty easy) because we won’t win in November by tearing down other Republicans.”
Such a division is unusual among Republican candidates and it likely spurred Republican caucus turnout.
Although Republicans and Democrats conducted straw polls for their governor race candidates, poll winners often do not end up on the November general election ballot.
However, the outcome of the Downey-Johnson spat could affect a couple of big names still thinking about getting in: Pawlenty and House Speaker Kurt Daudt.
Daudt remains uncommitted to the race.
Pawlenty and Daudt were not on the straw poll ballot.
Declared governor candidates for both parties have been traveling the state trying to get support from party faithful who may attend caucuses. Other than several forums, they have had relatively little interaction with the general public.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton says his current term, which ends early next January, will be his last in public office.
The last time there was an open governor’s office, in 2010, caucus straw polls gave Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak the DFL advantage and state Rep. Marty Seifert the Republican nod. Neither won his political party’s endorsement.
While party chairmen say they want the decision about who will run for various offices to be decided in party conventions, there are signs the governor races may be decided in an Aug. 14 primary.
Democrats will meet in Rochester for their nominating convention and Republicans in Duluth, both the first weekend of June.