Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has been in Iowa for over 30 hours by now, helping Iowa Republicans raise money. The strategic decisions illustrated by the trip, thus far, are interesting for a potential presidential candidate. (Pawlenty, of course, did not say he’s running for president. That’s a decision he’ll make “early next year.”)
First, there’s Pawlenty’s list of campaign fundraisers — just who he’s helping and just where they live. On Saturday morning Pawlenty appeared in Dubuque at a fundraiser for State Representative Steve Lukan. Lukan is an assistant leader in the Iowa House of Representatives and, as such, is expected to send other GOP candidates for the House campaign cash — cash he now has more of, thanks to Pawlenty.
On Saturday evening, Pawlenty helped Kraig Paulsen, the leader of Republicans in the Iowa House, raise money at a fundraiser in Cedar Rapids. And today Pawlenty helped State Rep. Jeff Kaufmann out by headlining a fundraiser in West Liberty. Kaufmann, like Lukan (the guy in Dubuque), is an assistant leader and needs to spread some cash to other House Republicans.
The Iowa legislature is made up of a 100-member House and a 50-member Senate. Many observers believe Republicans have a shot at winning enough seats in the House this November to take majority control away from Democrats. Those three fundraisers Pawlenty attended/headlined give that cause a needed boost, as the Republicans are behind this cycle in raising campaign cash for House races, as compared to 2008.
Pawlenty helped out one other Republican legislative candidate on Saturday. Bill Dix is running for a state senate seat. Democrats currently hold a 30-to-20 32-to-18 seat advantage in the state senate, and only half those seats are up in 2010. Dix, though, is a former state legislator and a former congressional candidate who is considered positioned well to wrest a state senate seat away from a Democratic incumbent.
Beyond helping key candidates, Pawlenty also visited areas of the state where his biography may be familiar. West Liberty — the site of Pawlenty’s Sunday stop — is home to a meatpacking plant that processes turkeys. Dubuque – the site of Pawlenty’s Saturday morning stop – was a meatpacking town that’s had to deal with a plant closure.
“You know, I come from a meatpacking town,” Pawlenty said to the crowd in Dubuque as he began to answer a woman’s question about the federal government’s bail-out of the auto industry. “Some of you – well, not many of you — may be old enough to remember South Saint Paul, Minnesota. At one time back in the ’60s and ’70s it was the home of the world’s largest stockyards and some of the world’s largest meatpacking plants. And my brothers and sisters did things like work in oil refineries and long-time produce clerks in grocery stores and one of them is a special ed aides in school districts or long term secretaries or administrative assistants.
“I share that with you because when I talk about these economic issues…I want you to know I have a background and a life experience that speaks to the economic concerns and the realities a lot of these employees face.”
With this bit of biography, Pawlenty sets himself apart from another potential 2012 presidential candidate — former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Romney’s father was president of American Motors Corporation.
With (at least) seven current or former governors on the list of potential presidential candidates in 2012 who’ve visited Iowa since November of 2008, Pawlenty must create some separation, somehow. During a conversation with Radio Iowa (me) on Saturday, Pawlenty seemed to be painting Minnesota as the new Massachusetts. Massachusetts may have been the home of the Teddy and the rest of the Kennedys, but Pawlenty rattled off a long list of liberals who are Minnesotans.
“Minnesota’s a very liberal place. It’s the home of Eugene McCarthy and Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone and, you know, United States Senator Al Franken and it has a big-government, big-spending tradition and we stopped that,” Pawlenty said. “And it was a big struggle. You know, for much of my time as governor we had a liberal-controlled legislature, but we were able to slow-down, stop, reform government in Minnesota in substantial ways…Those are the same kinds of things and changes that are going to be needed nationally.”
I followed that statement from Pawlenty with this: “I’m struck by the fact that Mitt Romney offered that same message to voters last time around – a Republican governor in an extremely liberal state, of Massachusetts. How do you think your own experience is different?”
Pawlenty replied: “Well, I think each of us have our own set of strengths and weaknesses. Everybody does, so rather than commenting on another candidate, I can just talk about my own strengths. I come from a very modest, blue-collar background. That gives you a connection with people.
“I mean, if you’re going to be walking into the local VFW and talking to the guy with a Carhartt jacket on about things, it helps to be able to say, ‘I come from a background that’s similar to yours and this is why being a Republican or a conservative is good.’ It helps to have a little of that credibility because of what you’ve done in your life, or what experiences you’ve had.
“Number two, I don’t think it’s just a matter of being governor of a liberal state. It’s also your values. It’s also your principles and your record and in Minnesota, you know, I’ve got a pretty strong record on the kinds of things that the government needs which is slowing down, reducing spending; reforming government; making it more lean and efficient — and we’re going to need that at all levels of government.”
Finally, back to the campaign cash Pawlenty was helping Iowa Republicans raise this weekend. In 2006, Romney was chairman of the Republican Governors Association and, as such, he came to Iowa to publicly give GOP gubernatorial candidate Jim Nussle a big check. In the first half of 2010, Romney’s raised nearly $3.5 million for his Free and Strong America PAC. Romney has already given Terry Branstad $20,000 this year.
In 2010, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour – another potential 2012 presidential candidate – is chairman of the Republican Governors Association, which raised a record $19 million in the second quarter as the group positions itself to be a bigger player in gubernatorial races around the country than the Republican National Committee.
Pawlenty has established a Freedom First PAC and he collected about $1.3 million this year to hand out as campaign donations. The on-the-ground, spending-time-in-Iowa fundraisers Pawlenty has done this weekend may be the rather “modest, blue collar” way Pawlenty competes with the likes of Barbour and Romney.