ST. PAUL, Minn. – Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty ruled himself out of the race for former Democratic Sen. Al Franken’s seat on Tuesday, handing Washington Republicans their latest setback in recruiting top-tier candidates in the potentially bruising midterm elections.
The two-term governor and 2012 presidential candidate’s name quickly surfaced after Franken announced last month that he’d resign amid sexual misconduct allegations.
Pawlenty is a prolific fundraiser with deep connections after a national campaign and five years as a top banking lobbyist. Republicans in Washington and Minnesota largely viewed the race as his to turn down as he publicly considered a run.
But on Tuesday, he announced during an interview on Fox Business that he wouldn’t run. He noted there were only 10 months until the election in Minnesota, which he labeled “a tough state for Republicans.”
“So you’d have to start very soon and, like I said, I’m interested in continuing to serve but there’s a variety of ways to do that. Running for U.S. Senate this year won’t be one of them,” he said.
His announcement follows North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer’s decision last week not to challenge vulnerable Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. Cramer was viewed as a slam dunk in a state that voted for President Donald Trump by 36 points in 2016.
In notoriously blue Minnesota, Republicans had hope of breaking through after Trump came within 1 percentage point of edging Hillary Clinton. Yet Republicans nationwide have sounded an increasingly anxious tone at the dawn of the midterm year.
After losing what would have been a sure-thing special election in Alabama but for damaging allegations of sexual misconduct, the GOP’s two-seat majority in the Senate was cut in half with the election of Democrat Doug Jones. And despite a tough map for Democrats, Trump’s historic low popularity for a first-year president has prompted some confidants of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to suggest that holding the Senate may be extremely difficult.
Pawlenty is among the best-known political figures in Minnesota, and the last Republican to win statewide since his 2006 re-election. But he never eclipsed 47 per cent of the vote during his two terms as governor. He also spent years as the head of the Financial Services Roundtable, making millions of dollars annually lobbying on behalf of the nation’s largest banks.
His decision to stay out of the Senate race clears the path for state Sen. Karin Housley, the only major Republican who has announced a bid and a long-time friend of Pawlenty.
“This announcement opens the door for a lot of his supporters who were waiting to hear his decision to get on board and join team Housley for U.S. Senate,” Housley said in a statement.
Former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who also ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, has also said she’s considering a campaign for the Senate seat.
The Democrat appointed by the governor to immediately replace Franken in the Senate, Sen. Tina Smith, is running for the seat in November. No other Democrats have said they’ll challenge her for the seat.
Pawlenty is still considering another run for governor in his home state this year.
Associated Press writer Tom Beaumont contributed to this report from Des Moines, Iowa.