The Magazine

Tooting the Horn of Pawlenty

Meet the first Sam's Club Republican.

May 7, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 32 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Nowhere is the Democratic advantage more clear than with voters 18 to 29 years old. Voting patterns among this cohort shape the political environment for years to come. In the 1984 presidential election, 18- to 29-year-olds voted 40 percent Democratic and 59 percent Republican. In the 1986 congressional election, 18- to 29-year-olds were pretty much split down the middle, voting 51 percent Democratic and 49 percent Republican. One could argue such voting patterns helped set the stage for conservative governance.

After more than a decade of mirroring general electoral trends, however, the youth vote has veered left. In 2004, 18- to 29-year-olds went Democratic 54 percent to 45 percent. In the 2006 congressional elections, these voters went Democratic 60 percent to 38 percent, making them one of the most Democratic groups in the country--voting for the donkey at about the same levels as union members. If this youthful cohort continues to vote in similar ways as it grows older, the GOP is in serious trouble.

It is out of such a climate that politicians like Tim Pawlenty emerge.

At first the South St. Paul native wanted to be a dentist. He would be walking down the street and see the local teeth-cleaner--Dr. Vogel--driving his Buick Riviera, parking it in a reserved spot, and would think, Wow! This is awesome. To practice dentistry--to make money as a professional--was to enhance one's status. It was also a way to transcend difficult circumstances. Pawlenty's mother died when he was 16. His father was a truck driver who lost his job not long after her passing. Pawlenty was his family's first college graduate. He went to the University of Minnesota.

"I went to college pre-dentistry and got into organic and inorganic chemistry," he says. "And back then you had to get pretty close to a straight-A average to get into dental school, and I think I got a B- or something in either organic or inorganic chemistry, and I was discouraged and going through--you know--pretty much soul-searching as a 19- or 20-year-old kid, and I went to see a career counselor at the U--who happened to be some graduate student who I'm sure they gave a stipend to be a career counselor in their free time--and it was, you know, this zen-like thing in his office, and he said, 'What do you love to do, you know? What's your passion? What do you like to do, what books do you read on vacation?'

" . . . Long story short, I just told him I like current events, I like history, public policy. And he said, 'Well, go into something you love and do well, and whatever you love is what you'll do well in.' So that propelled me to go start taking some political science classes."

Pawlenty worked with the College Republicans and switched his major to political science. It wasn't long before he realized he probably wouldn't be able to find a job with a bachelor's in poli-sci: Holy cow, I'm going to be unemployed! I'm going to be selling hot dogs on a street corner over here if I don't get a graduate degree. So he went to law school--"Not because I had some innate love of the law. . . . I wanted to get a degree and wanted to get a job." He interned with a local state senator, practiced law, and was elected to the state house in 1992.

It's impossible to review Pawlenty's career in politics without mentioning Republican Norm Coleman, now the senior senator from Minnesota. Time after time Coleman's political decisions directly affected Pawlenty's electoral fortunes. "Norm Coleman is a very gifted senator and wonderful senator and a friend, he was a pretty well-known Minnesota political figure because he had been [the Democratic] mayor of St. Paul, dynamic, well-connected, well-financed," Pawlenty says. It all started when Pawlenty wanted to run for governor in 1998 but the decks were cleared for Mayor Coleman, who had switched parties and had an institutional advantage. Pawlenty deferred to Coleman, who went on to lose to Reform party candidate Jesse "The Body/The Mind" Ventura in a close race.

In 1999 Pawlenty was elected majority leader of the Minnesota House of Representatives. The Republicans had a one-vote majority, the Democrats held the senate, and Ventura was governor. Pawlenty was young and untested. "His colleagues saw something in him," says Minneapolis attorney Scott Johnson, one of the Powerline bloggers. "Tim held that majority together, which is so hard to do."

Johnson recalls meeting Pawlenty in 2000, at a lunch with some Republican lawyer friends. "I couldn't believe what a talented guy he was," Johnson says. "There's nobody he can't talk to. He's impossible to dislike. And that's such a rare commodity on the Republican side."