Despite national buzz, Pawlenty has gubernatorial intentionsby Laura McCallum, Minnesota Public Radio
Gov. Tim Pawlenty says his "complete and total focus" for the next four years is serving as the state's chief executive. In his first news conference since winning the election, the Republican governor pledged to serve a full second term, despite regional and national speculation about his prospects for higher office. Pawlenty weathered a largely-Democratic sweep that ousted many Republican officeholders, and has prompted some political observers to question whether Minnesota is back in the blue column.
St. Paul, Minn. — When Pawlenty first won the governor's office four years ago, he seemed to personify the rising strength of conservatives in the state. The GOP's near sweep of statewide offices in 2002 moved Minnesota into the "purple" column - a mix of Republican red and Democratic blue.
Pawlenty's first term was marked by massive state budget cuts, a controversial no-new taxes pledge and a partial government shutdown. The governor says his next four years will be much different than his first term, after he won re-election with just a 1-percent margin of victory.
For starters, he'll work with a Legislature that's solidly in DFL control. Pawlenty says he'll work with Democratic leaders on issues of concern to both sides.
"And they will tend to be the meat-and-potato issues that I think most Minnesotans are concerned about, like how do we improve our schools and properly fund them, how do we improve our roads and our transit system, how do we provide further access and cost containment in health care?" Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty led the state as a fiscal and a social conservative. But his list of leading concerns didn't include social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, although he wouldn't say anything is off the table at this point.
Pawlenty is among a shrinking number of Republican governors -- down to 22 after the election -- and he bucked a near-DFL sweep of statewide offices in Minnesota.
That's raised his profile as a rising star in the Republican Party, but Pawlenty downplayed any talk of his appearing on a national ticket.
"I am very honored and humbled to be able to continue to serve in this position," Pawlenty said. "I'm going to give all of the energy and enthusiasm and skills that I have to try to make this the best state possible and to try to improve the lives of Minnesotans, I am not worried about or focused on national elective office."
Pawlenty is next in line to chair the National Governors Association, but says that won't distract him from his state duties.
Pawlenty has long described Minnesota as a purple state, but he says the election results indicate the state still favors Democratic candidates by five to ten percent. Political scientist Steven Smith of Washington University in St. Louis agrees.
"The exit polls from election day showed that about 10 percent more Minnesotans identified themselves as Democrats than as Republicans -- roughly 45-35, with about 25 percent calling themselves independents. So we're still a state that leans Democratic," Smith said.
But at the same time, Smith says the state is more red than it used to be. He said on MPR's Midday program that since the mid-1970s, Minnesota has been trending more Republican in votes for statewide office, at least up until this election.
National Republican strategist Vin Weber says Minnesota continues to be a competitive state. He says this year doesn't put the state solidly in the blue column, any more than the GOP sweep four years ago put it in the red one.
"The voters don't move from being very conservative to very liberal in a four year period of time," according to Weber. "They were neither as conservative four years ago as some of the more optimistic Republicans wanted to think they were, nor are they as liberal today as my Democrat friends want to think they are. The Minnesota people are independent minded."
But there's no question that Republicans lost ground this election in suburban areas that have traditionally been solidly conservative, such as Woodbury and Minnetonka.
DFLer Blois Olson, co-editor of Politics in Minnesota, says the large number of legislative seats won by Democrats indicates that Minnesota remains a fairly blue state.
"I think these legislative races show us that there was a correction on state issues, because the issues of transportation, health care and education certainly resonated in some of the suburban seats that the Democrats picked up," Olson said.
Pawlenty says the message he takes away from the election is that Minnesotans want leaders who are focused on finding common ground and getting things done. He plans to meet soon with the new legislative leaders chosen by their caucuses, and then will set his agenda for the upcoming session. State leaders will likely have a surplus to spend - Pawlenty says he expects the next revenue forecast to show a budget surplus topping a billion dollars.
- All Things Considered, 11/09/2006, 5:19 p.m.