How Do We Judge Governor Pawlenty’s Political Legacy?

As Tim Pawlenty completes the remaining 18+ months of his second term, before venturing into (politically or financially) greener pastures, he has vowed to “Continue to spend every day doing what’s right for them. Minnesota will get my very best until I’m done. There is much important and difficult work remaining, and I will tackle it aggressively and finish strong.”

With one and one-half chapters left to write in his book as Governor, it is therefore certainly too early to judge the political legacy he has left behind in the Gopher State with any clarity.

In fact, quantifying that legacy, now or in the future, will surely be a difficult task.

Looking only at the political (not policy) side of the equation, Pawlenty has survived, and his national reputation has thrived, in the midst of the Democratic landslides that have taken place in recent years. The Governor’s fellow Republicans statewide, however, have not fared so well.

What do the numbers look like?

· Since Pawlenty took office in January 2003, the DFL has won 60 percent (289 of 482) of state legislative special and general election contests.

· The DFL has won 58.8 percent of House contests and netted a total of 35 seats since 2003.

· In the Senate, the DFL has nearly won double the number of elections as the GOP (49 to 25), adding a net 10 seats to their column.

· In Congressional elections, the DFL has similarly won 61.5 percent of seats since 2003, 14 of 24 U.S. House contests and both US Senate elections (presuming Norm Coleman loses his Minnesota Supreme Court challenge). In 2008, Republican US House candidates actually received the lowest level of voter support for the GOP since 1934.

· Republicans also lost control of two state constitutional offices during this span (Secretary of State, State Auditor).

Change in the Number of Prominent Republican Officeholders in Minnesota, 2003-2009

Office
GOP 2003
GOP 2009
Change
MN House
82
47
-35
MN Senate
31
46
-10
US House
4
3
-1
US Senate
1
0
-1
Const. Officers
3
1
-2

While those numbers do not look good for Pawlenty’s political legacy, it is difficult to make the case that this atrophying of the state Republican Party, and the accompanying Democratic surge in the Gopher State, should be attributed to the Governor. In fact, many analysts can point to Pawlenty’s moderately high approval ratings in the face of Democratic landslides as evidence for the plus column for his political legacy (i.e. the ‘last Republican standing’).

That is to say, if Pawlenty were an unpopular governor, not only would he not have been reelected in 2006, but perhaps the Republican losses across legislative and Congressional seats would have been even worse. Moreover, Pawlenty’s current approval numbers in the face of the state budget and economic crises (still hovering around 50 percent) suggest that he would have once again been a strong candidate against the DFL again in 2010, should he have decided to run for a third term (most national political analysts rated him as a slight favorite, as did Smart Politics).

Evidence therefore points to the national decline of the Republican Party – and the unpopularity of George W. Bush – as the primary reasons for the legislative and Congressional setbacks for the GOP over the past six years in the Gopher State.

For example, in February 2003, shortly after Pawlenty took office, the Governor had an approval rating of 60 percent (Star Tribune Minnesota Poll). President Bush had a nearly identical approval rating of 59 percent that month (Gallup Poll).

But by the November 2008 elections, Bush’s approval ratings had dropped to 28 percent (Gallup Poll), while Pawlenty’s remained virtually unchanged at 58 percent (SurveyUSA).

In short, if Pawlenty’s executive or political leadership was hurting his fellow Republicans statewide, then why weren’t his own numbers taking a hit as well?

While it is difficult to see how Pawlenty, as the face of the Republican Party in Minnesota, can emerge with his political legacy completely untarnished by his party’s losses, a much stronger case can be made that such defeats endured by the GOP in Minnesota were more of a direct result of Bush’s negative 32-point approval rating plunge and the anti-Republican climate that swept much of the country and the Midwest in recent years.

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1 Comment on "How Do We Judge Governor Pawlenty’s Political Legacy?"

  1. This is a very interesting conundrum — how do we measure the influence of a single governor during a period of national decline in popularity, affiliation and demographic trends related to his party? Perhaps he’s decided it’s better to leave on a high note?

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