Minnesota could be the canary in the coal mine for 2020

So what the heck happened in the Minnesota GOP gubernatorial primary last night? I suppose the shortest answer might be… Trump happened.

The President gets credited or blamed (depending on your perspective) for all manner of things these days, but in the race between Tim Pawlenty and County Commissioner/businessman Jeff Johnson, the claim may indeed be fair. When the dust had settled it was the two-term former governor who was giving the concession speech and Jeff Johnson was on his way to the general election, facing Congressman Tim Walz (D-MN 1). Pawlenty was running for his old job primarily on his record, while Johnson turned the race into a referendum on President Trump. (Fox News)

Tim Pawlenty — who briefly ran for president in 2012 and had derided President Trump as “unhinged” — was denied in his effort to stage a political comeback and become Minnesota’s governor again in the race to replace Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

County Commissioner Jeff Johnson won in Tuesday’s Minnesota GOP gubernatorial primary despite Pawlenty’s enormous fundraising and name recognition advantages. He also won despite his own history as the party’s losing candidate for governor four years ago…

Johnson had positioned himself as a more conservative candidate than Pawlenty. He branded the former two-term governor as part of the “status quo” and bashed him for calling Trump “unhinged and unfit for the presidency” in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election — rhetoric that Pawlenty softened during the campaign.

There’s a reason that the Minnesota governor’s race might be the perfect scrying mirror for the 2020 presidential race. I’d assumed that if Pawlenty wanted his old gig back at the governor’s mansion he’d almost be a lock to get it, and Johnson really didn’t have any major credentials to run on. Yet when Johnson kept hammering Pawlenty over his “unhinged” criticism of Trump, he won over the GOP base and came home with the win. But that was just a race among Republicans. Now can he carry the state in the general election?

In 2016, Hillary Clinton squeaked out a win by barely one and a half points in Minnesota. The state has a history of being open to governors of either party in the modern era, sending a Democrat to the mansion for the last two terms after keeping Pawlenty in office for a similar period prior to that. Now Jeff Johnson has made the race about Donald Trump and his opponent is unlikely to let him forget about it from now until November. If Johnson can carry the day, then Minnesota isn’t ready to reject Trump and all of his surrogate wholesale. But if Johnson goes down in a landslide (which would probably be a fair description if he loses by more than 12 or 15) that doesn’t augur well for the President or the GOP in general in 2020.

There was one other bit of news from yesterday I wanted to touch on and it comes to us from New Mexico. Gary Johnson is back, this time not running for President or governor, but rather jumping into the Senate race on the Libertarian ticket. Could he wind up flipping that Senate seat from blue to red? Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich was supposed to be on a relatively easy glide path to victory this November, with few people giving his Republican challenger, Mick Rich, much of a chance. But Johnson has already proven he can win in a statewide race in the past and he’s pulled double digits there in a national race as a Libertarian.

Heinrich’s margin of victory wasn’t expected to be that wide, so Johnson has the potential to be a spoiler. But that’s only if he draws almost entirely from the incumbent’s pool of voters. Early polling shows that he would be pulling more GOP support, but Johnson is on record as saying that Trump’s presidency “could be the end of the republic as we know it.” That could wind up herding more Republicans back to Rich and broaden Johnson’s appeal to potential Democratic voters.

Personally, I’d still put the New Mexico Senate race in the Leans Dem category (if not Safe Dem) but it certainly just got a bit more interesting. The real fireworks, however, will still be in the Wisconsin Governor’s race. If the Democrats hang onto that one it could spell serious trouble for the GOP 27 months from now.

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