President Trump never mentioned Tim Pawlenty at a rally in Duluth, Minn., on Wednesday. But with a shout-out to Pawlenty’s running mate, Michelle Fischbach, the president seemed to all but endorse Pawlenty’s bid for the Republican nomination for Minnesota governor this year.
That’s good news for Pawlenty, who is hoping to revive his political career with a return to the Minnesota statehouse as governor, where he served two terms a decade ago. Like many Republican veterans, Pawlenty is struggling to navigate a party that Trump has transformed. He is trying to embrace Trump enough to placate him and his supporters, but not so much that he scares away voters who don’t like the president but whose votes he would need in the November election.
Pawlenty was not among the gaggle of Republicans who joined Trump on stage at AMSOIL Arena in Duluth on Wednesday evening, and he has struggled to strike a balance between praising Trump’s leadership as president and explaining his strong rebukes of Trump in 2016 after a video emerged showing Trump bragging about groping and harassing women.
Fischbach, who is seeking the nomination to serve as Pawlenty’s lieutenant governor, already holds that position, having risen to the job last year after Sen. Al Franken resigned under accusations of sexual harassment. At the time, Fischbach was president of the Minnesota Senate; when Gov. Mark Dayton (D) appointed his lieutenant governor, Tina Smith, to succeed Franken, Fischbach replaced her.
“She has been so great,” Trump said of Fischbach at his rally in Duluth. “She’s got a big race coming along. It’s going to be so great.”
Pawlenty supporters privately have expressed confidence that the president would not support Jeff Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner who is also vying for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Although Johnson has more fully embraced the president — and has tried to point out the ways in which Pawlenty has not — he has lost two prior statewide electoral bids, and he lags far behind Pawlenty in fundraising.
Johnson campaign manager Justin Arnold dismissed the significance of Trump’s mention of Fischbach.
“She’s the sitting Lt. Governor of Minnesota and was there in that capacity,” Arnold said in an email. “It’s not surprising at all that she would be mentioned.”
Trump appeared in Duluth primarily to lend a boost to Pete Stauber, the Republican candidate for the 8th Congressional District — a Democratic seat that the GOP views as one of its top pickup opportunities this year.
Trump also made clear in his speech that he is looking ahead to his own prospects in 2020, when he hopes to win Minnesota, which he lost in 2016 by less than two points.
“You know, I hate to bring this up, but we came this close to winning the state of Minnesota,” he said at the rally. “And in two and a half years, it’s going to be really easy, I think.”
Pawlenty, who has spent the last six years leading the Financial Services Roundtable, a powerful lobbying group for banks, may have had an inside advantage in Trump’s White House: Both Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s press secretary, and Nick Ayers, Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, worked for Pawlenty’s ill-fated presidential campaign in 2011.