Mitt Romney may have been the loser last night but things were much worse for Tim Pawlenty. The former Minnesota governor, who briefly was a candidate for president, has done everything by the book in his political career. He won two terms as a governor of a swing state and then ran for the White House with a uniquely appealing brand as a “Sam’s Club Republican.”
But Pawlenty then ran out of money after not meeting expectations in the Ames straw poll, so he dropped out of the race. After all, there isn’t supposed to be a path forward in the presidential primary for candidates with empty coffers and unmet expectations. In defeat, he backed frontrunner Mitt Romney and became an eager surrogate for the Massachusetts Republican. Then last night, Romney not only suffered a disappointing setback, but did so in Pawlenty’s home state of Minnesota—which Romney won overwhelmingly in 2008.
Pawlenty was once considered presidential timber, fawned over in national profiles as the future of the Republican Party. But last night, he couldn’t deliver his home state—which he carried even during the Democratic wave of 2006—for the GOP frontrunner. Although Pawlenty was the lead surrogate for the Romney campaign in Minnesota, repeatedly attacking Rick Santorum, it did little good. In fact, Romney finished third in Minnesota, behind Ron Paul as well as Santorum.
But as embarrassing as this was, it still didn’t come close to a new political low for him. The most notable moment of Pawlenty’s presidential campaign was when he was unable to criticize Romney’s Massachusetts health-care plan in a debate, one day after stridently attacking it as “Obamneycare” on Fox News Sunday. Two months after that, he was forced out of the presidential race by Michele Bachmann.
Adding to Pawlenty’s humiliation was that tonight’s winner, Santorum, was running in the exact niche of the GOP field—economically populist, socially conservative—that the ex-governor occupied. Santorum has even made the same criticisms of Romney as Pawlenty. In fact, the only difference between the two was that Pawlenty made for a far more credible nominee, and a far more credible potential president, last year. He had supporters from all corners of the GOP, ranging from establishment intellectuals to Joe Wilson, the congressman who shouted “you lie” at President Obama. But while Pawlenty took his third-place finish in the Ames straw poll as a reason to drop out, Santorum turned his fourth-place showing into victory on caucus night in Iowa (and in all three states holding contests last night).
Romney's dismal showing in Minnesota shouldn't end Pawlenty’s political career. After all, Romney is still the favorite in the Republican primary, and Pawlenty’s loss in one straw poll shouldn’t negate two statewide wins as a Republican in Minnesota. But last night cost Pawlenty a lot of political capital. Despite being the designated Romney attack dog, the former Massachusetts governor suffered a crushing defeat in Pawlenty’s home state.
This will likely squelch any vice-presidential ambitions Pawlenty had and force him to channel any ambitions in a future Romney administration toward one of the less glamorous cabinet posts. Like 2008’s stillborn presidential contender Tom Vilsack, he could end up falling into the abyss of the Department of Agriculture. But, it could be even worse if Pawlenty wishes to stay in politics. Minnesota has a competitive Senate race in 2014, and Pawlenty could be stuck in a three-pronged race against Al Franken and write-in candidate Lizard People. After being unable to best Bachmann and her bizarre sense of humor, Pawlenty likely would be in deep trouble facing a professional comedian. But regardless of what path he takes, it is clear that the joke was on Tim Pawlenty last night.